SORRENTO — Mayor Mike Lambert broke a 2-2 deadlock Tuesday night, clearing the way for the town to settle Police Chief Fern Barnett’s lawsuit over her back pay and bring an end to a Police Department that voters overwhelming abolished last fall.
With the 3-2 council vote bolstered by Mayor Lambert, the town accepted an offer from Barnett’s attorney dated Jan. 16 asking for her back pay as chief in exchange for her agreement to resign March 21.
Barnett sued the town, the council and Lambert on Dec. 23 in state district court, claiming that, under state law, she was due her pay as elected chief. She had asked a court to order the town to pay her, and a hearing is set for Feb. 9.
The split council vote came after a nearly one-hour closed meeting Tuesday with their lawyer and Lambert.
Council members Marvin Martin and Wanda Bourgeois voted for accepting the offer while council members Donald Schexnaydre and Patti Poche were opposed. Councilman Randy Anny, the fifth member of the council who could have broken the deadlock, was absent.
“We have a tie,” Lambert said after the votes. “I am going to vote to pay Ms. Barnett.”
Lambert then read out loud the letter from Barnett’s attorney Vincent J. Sotile Jr.
Lambert read that Barnett agreed to resign in exchange for being paid her monthly salary of $2,800 plus benefits, including health insurance premiums, from Oct. 21 to March 21.
Town officials did not immediately have a calculation on how much the total agreement would cost the town, but did set a hearing Feb. 17 to amend the town budget to pay Barnett.
According to the letter Lambert read, Barnett would help liquidate the Police Department and all litigation would be stayed through March 21. If she is paid by then, Barnett will resign and all litigation will be dismissed, Lambert read.
Barnett, a 71-year-old great-grandmother with no law enforcement experience, 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.
During the same election, Sorrento voters overwhelmingly decided to scrap a Police Department beset by scandal, culminating with a federal conviction of former Chief Earl Theriot Jr. for lying to the FBI about inappropriate sexual contact with a drunken woman he picked up while on duty.
Despite the public’s vote, the office of police chief must continue to exist under state law for the duration of Barnett’s term, which expires June 30, 2017, unless Barnett resigns.
Barnett’s suit pointed to a section of the Lawrason Act that says while a 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. Theriot made $37,810 annually in salary and benefits when he was chief, though that figure excludes state supplemental pay.
Town Council members regularly urged Barnett to step aside. In November, council members first declined a vote on paying her wages and benefits, and then, in a second meeting, voted against paying her at Theriot’s old rate of pay.
Barnett, who has been coy about her long-term intentions as chief, claimed in her suit that the town violated the law when it failed to pay her.
Since her election, Barnett has been chief of a defunct department without insurance to allow her to patrol or the funding to hire officers while the council also has moved to sell her equipment as surplus. Her suit claimed she has been performing administrative and other nonpatrol duties.
The town has an agreement with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office for police protection.
After the meeting Tuesday, Barnett told reporters she was OK with the agreement. She said she was currently working on permits to dispose of the department guns.
Lambert declined comment. Councilman Schexnaydre said he remains opposed to putting “a dime” in the Police Department.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.