Inside Report for Dec. 12, 2012

Sorrento goings-on have soap opera quality

The drama continues to unfold in the real-life soap opera that is the Sorrento government.

The mayor and council of the small Ascension Parish municipality continue to squabble, over everything it seems, but mostly about the town’s police department and legal bills.

Through five months of the 2012-13 fiscal year, Sorrento town officials already spent $46,350 in attorney fees.

The town’s budget called for $47,000 in attorney expenses for the entire fiscal year.

That number was a major increase from the past three fiscal years, when the average budget for attorney expenses for each fiscal year was about $31,000.

At its current pace, the town of 1,401 people is expected to spend more than $110,000 on attorneys this year. In comparison, the city of Gonzales, which has 9,781 residents, budgeted $30,000 for attorney fees. The city of Donaldsonville, with a population of 7,436, budgeted $25,000 for legal bills.

The crux of the debate among Sorrento officials — mostly among Mayor Wilson Longanecker Jr. and certain members of the town council, including Randy Anny and Jason Adams — centers on the amount of money being spent on attorneys related to an investigation into the town’s police department.

Longanecker, who has questioned some of the charges submitted by attorneys Karl Scott and Donovan Hudson, said the town needs to be more fiscally prudent. The mayor’s hesitance to pay some of the bills led to a confrontation with Adams.

Hudson, meanwhile, told The Advocate that many of the problems stemmed from Longanecker’s medical leave, which lasted from February to August. Hudson said the mayor wasn’t around to answer some “basic questions” during the start of the police investigation, causing extra work for attorneys.

Anny, the town’s mayor pro tem, was in charge during Longanecker’s medical leave, when the budget was approved and much of the work surrounding the police investigation began. The two had been political rivals in the March 2011 special mayoral election, when Anny was the runner-up to Longanecker. Another match between the two is a possibility in the next mayoral race in April.

Anny and Longanecker both have said they have their own ideas about what is best for the town, and that rivalry may not end until after the election. Anny hasn’t committed to running; Longanecker has said he seriously is considering a run at re-election.

The embarrassment the constant fighting has caused the town is wearing thin in Sorrento. Council members have accused Longanecker of leaking stories to the media. Longanecker, however, said someone has an ax to grind against him and is leaking negative stories to the press.

Several residents and even the parish’s sheriff, Jeff Wiley, have said the town might be better off if its voters would decide to unincorporate and be governed by the parish. John Gallagher, staff attorney with the Louisiana Municipal Association, said that process would be similar to incorporating — a petition of 25 percent of the electors and then an election — but he called that process “a very serious act.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear the legal spending will even slow down, as three of the town’s police officers have threatened to file a lawsuit against the town and police department over alleged racial and sexual discrimination by Police Chief Earl Theriot.

Town officials have met with the police officers and their attorney in an attempt to reach a resolution. Even if they reach a settlement, a cloud of suspicion still hovers over a town that doesn’t need any more bad publicity.

Bret H. McCormick covers government and education at The Advocate’s River Parishes bureau. He can be reached at bmccormick@theadvocate.com.