SORRENTO — The town’s voters had their say Tuesday on the future of the Police Department and the elected police chief’s position, voting resoundingly to abolish both.
Now it’s time for the newly elected police chief to have her say, and on Wednesday, she said she had not made up her mind on whether to resign. Under state law, she’s entitled to continue serving until the unexpired term she was elected to fill ends on June 30, 2017.
“I gave residents a chance to make a choice. They made their choice. Now I have to make a choice. That’s it,” Police Chief Fern Barnett said Wednesday morning, reading from a statement.
Barnett, who was sworn in Oct. 21 to fill the remainder of former Police Chief Earl Theriot’s term, said she does not know how long she will take to decide whether to remain chief or step down. The Town Council meets at 6 p.m. Thursday to consider Barnett’s pay and benefits.
Sixty-five percent of voters in Sorrento cast ballots to abolish the department and position of police chief, while 35 percent voted to keep both, according to complete but unofficial returns from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office.
There were 339 votes cast to abolish the Police Department and police chief’s position and 186 votes to keep the two. Turnout was 49.9 percent.
Despite that overwhelming tide against the department and the job of police chief, the law that let voters decide on the future of the once state-mandated position of elected police chief does not allow Theriot’s current term to end before it expires — unless the chief’s position is vacant.
Theriot was forced to resign from office midway through his term after he negotiated a guilty plea on a federal charge. He pleaded guilty in February to lying to an FBI agent over “inappropriate sexual contact” with a woman while he was on duty.
State law required that his unexpired term be filled in the Nov. 4 election.
Barnett, 71, a retired, longtime town police clerk and great-grandmother who has no law enforcement experience, became chief after the second of two opponents vying to fill Theriot’s term dropped out on Oct. 9.
Barnett had said she would consider resigning from her new job if voters rejected the department and chief’s position.
Mayor Mike Lambert said Wednesday that such overwhelming support to abolish the department was a surprise to him and represents a “landmark change of direction” for the town.
“It was a very strong statement by the people of Sorrento,” Lambert said.
He added that Barnett and her last opponent for chief, Jerry LeBlanc, remained on Tuesday’s ballot because LeBlanc withdrew from the race after the ballots were printed. His withdrawal led to Barnett being elected without opposition.
Nevertheless, people did cast votes in that race, even though those votes didn’t count.
Although not publicized Tuesday by the Secretary of State, the unofficial tally posted at the polls in Town Hall, Lambert said, shows LeBlanc received four more votes than Barnett. The tally — 154 votes for LeBlanc and 151 for Barnett — did not include early votes, Lambert said.
It’s unknown how many voters knew the police chief’s race on the ballot didn’t count.
Lambert and other town officials, who had lobbied for abolition of the department that they saw as a financial drain and an embarrassment, have said they want to turn over police protection to the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The scandal involving Theriot and earlier, expensive missteps by town officers and Theriot that contributed to the department losing its liability insurance coverage a year ago played into the push to do away with the department.
Since then, no funding has been provided to the department, and it has no officers. Sheriff’s deputies have been providing police protection on an interim basis.
After casting her vote Tuesday night, Amy Pezant, 41, said the Police Department was her No. 1 issue.
“Because I have lived here for over 25 years and we’re tired of it, very tired of it. It’s embarrassing, and this town has a lot of potential for growth,” Pezant said.
Several other voters leaving the polls Tuesday night said the U.S. Senate and 6th Congressional District races were the front-burner issues for them, but said the Police Department was an important one.
They said they voted to abolish the chief’s position and the department, felt the Sheriff’s Office was doing a good job and did not buy arguments that losing the department could be a step toward losing the town itself.
Robert Peck, 71, and his wife, Mary, 62, said they did not want to see Sorrento become part of unincorporated Ascension Parish again.
“I don’t think the people will let it go that way,” Robert Peck said.
“No, I think it’s just the department,” Mary Peck added.
A few leaving the polls said they voted to keep the department because they had not seen much police protection from the Sheriff’s Office since the town police patrols stopped.
“(Sorrento) cops were passing in front of my house every hour. Now I never see any,” said Ron Gros, 50. “And they might not be the best of cops, but some cop’s better than no cop.”
Following up on threats not to pay Barnett if she can’t get insurance, Lambert said Wednesday that the Town Council is not going to support funding any department for her after Tuesday’s vote.
“She is going to basically have nothing to do and so she is going to have to make a decision,” Lambert said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.