SORRENTO — The Town Council voted Tuesday to terminate the town’s last remaining police officer and give him back pay for working as assistant police chief for nearly three weeks without receiving a salary.
“I think we’ve come to an amicable separation,” Mayor Mike Lambert said after the meeting where, in a 4-1 vote, the council accepted his recommendation to terminate Assistant Police Chief Ricky Smith.
Lambert cited budget issues and the Police Department’s inability to secure liability insurance for its vehicles and officers as a reason for his recommendation.
Funding for the Police Department was drastically cut July 22 when the council amended the town’s 2014-15 budget by eliminating salary line items for police officers and a part-time police clerk.
The amendment also eliminated Police Department funding after July 31.
With no salary but no official termination notice either, Smith, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, said earlier this month he felt he was in “limbo.”
Smith did not answer an email sent to him earlier Tuesday. His attorney, Monica Gant Moton, did not return phone calls Tuesday.
Lambert said Smith has continued to report to work since the end of July.
Smith has said he fulfilled administrative duties at the Police Department office while the town pays the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office $36 per hour for police protection.
Perhaps the event that began the Police Department’s tumultuous decline, the department’s insurance provider, Risk Management Inc., did not continue providing coverage in November 2013. As a result, many of the department’s officers resigned or were terminated.
On Tuesday, in a 3-1 vote with Councilman Randy Anny abstaining, the Town Council also voted to pay Smith $2,400, including vacation benefits, for the time he worked without pay.
Councilwoman Patti Poche voted against paying Smith this money because she said wanted Smith to promise not to sue the town if officials opted to give him back pay.
Anny said he was worried the town would “assume liability” if the Police Department’s evidence custody chain was handled by anyone other than a commissioned police officer.
Town Attorney Matthew Percy said Smith voluntarily inventoried evidence stored at the Police Department this week with town accountant Jacob Waguespack.
Anny also wanted to know if the town needed to notify Smith in writing of his termination, but Percy said his numerous discussions with Moton, as well as the July 22 meeting where the town discussed cutting the Police Department’s funding, counted as notification.
Anny was also concerned the town had not yet contracted with the Sheriff’s Office for police protection.
Lambert said the Sheriff’s Office has already been notified of Smith’s vacancy and noted the town is paying an hourly rate to the agency until November when a contract can be discussed.
That’s because on Nov. 4, Sorrento residents will decide in a special election whether to abolish the entire Police Department and the elected police chief’s position.
Voters will also decide on the same ballot whether to fill the remainder of former Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr.’s term, which expires June 30, 2017.
Theriot resigned as part of a plea agreement in February after being convicted of lying to an FBI officer about inappropriate sexual contact he had with a drunk woman he picked up after a 911 call.
Qualifying for candidates in the Nov. 4 election is this week, Wednesday through Friday.