After voters abolish police department, pay remains up in the air for Sorrento police chief _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Sorrento Chief of Police Fern Barnett.

The Town Council voted Tuesday to pay Police Chief Fern Barnett $16,825 in back pay for work performed since the fall as part of a lawsuit settlement in which she’s agreed to step down on March 21.

The council voted to amend the town’s budget to appropriate the money to pay Barnett, a 71-year-old great-grandmother with no law enforcement experience. She won election as chief by default in October after two other contenders dropped out of the Nov. 4 race to fulfill the former police chief’s term.

Barnett had filed a lawsuit against the town for failing to pay her $2,800 monthly salary plus health benefits she says she is owed since being sworn in as police chief Oct. 21.

As part of an agreement arranged during an executive session at last month’s Town Council meeting, Barnett agreed to resign effective March 21 and dismiss any litigation against the town as long as she receives her back pay from the town.

After a public hearing Tuesday on the budget amendment ordinance at which no one from the public spoke, the Town Council voted 3-2 to appropriate money for Barnett’s salary and benefits by moving $16,825 from the town budget’s reserve fund to the public safety fund.

Council members Don Schexnaydre and Patti Poche, vocal opponents of Barnett, voted against amending the budget Tuesday.

At the last Town Council meeting, the two council members also opposed paying Barnett back pay in exchange for her resignation. Schexnaydre claimed the town shouldn’t put any more money in a defunct department with just one officer.

Council members Marvin Martin, Wanda Bourgeois and Randy Anny voted Tuesday to approve the budget amendment. Martin and Bourgeois supported the agreement last month to appropriate money to Barnett in exchange for her resignation.

Anny did not attend last month’s meeting, causing Mayor Mike Lambert to cast a vote in favor of the agreement to break the 2-2 tie.

The Town Council never appropriated money in this year’s fiscal budget to cover Police Department operational expenses or salaries because town officials have openly denied funding the department after years of dealing with lawsuits and embarrassing behavior from its officers.

One year ago, former Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. resigned after lying to FBI officers about his involvement in a sex scandal with an inebriated woman.

The Police Department also has been without liability insurance since November 2013 when its insurance provider opted not to continue providing coverage.

The Town Council instead has appropriated $353,832 in the budget to pay the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office for police protection.

Barnett is filling Theriot’s term and won the position by default after two opponents dropped out of the Nov. 4 race. On that same November ballot, however, town residents voted to disband the Police Department as well as abolish the position of police chief.

Despite the vote, Barnett is permitted by state law to continue Theriot’s term until its completion on June 30, 2017, unless she chooses to resign.

Initially, the Town Council refused to pay Barnett, claiming she performed no work as police chief and had no police force to direct, and even declared all Police Department items surplus in hopes of permanently shutting down the department.

Barnett sued, claiming the Town Council violated the Lawrason Act, a state law that says while the town council can increase or decrease a police chief’s salary, the council cannot reduce any elected official’s salary during the official’s current term.

Barnett said Tuesday she is keeping busy pricing equipment the department hopes to sell, including office equipment, ammunition, electronics and even six Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers and a van.

In other business, the council unanimously agreed to donate fingerprint sets, raincoats and lights to the Gonzales Police Department’s Junior Deputy program.