Law enforcement remains a murky issue in Sorrento

Department still without insurance; Sheriff’s Office providing law enforcement

As the new year approaches, the law enforcement situation in Sorrento, which lost its Police Department insurance coverage in November, remains as murky as ever.

There are only one or two known facts at the present date: The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office will continue to provide law enforcement at no charge for the town through Jan. 7, the date of the town’s next council meeting; and the Sorrento Police Department, which now consists only of Police Chief Earl Theriot, who is on medical leave, and Assistant Police Chief Ricky Smith, still does not have liability coverage.

Mayor Mike Lambert said he and the council are waiting for a recommendation from Theriot. Lambert has resisted calling a special meeting before Jan. 7 because Theriot has yet to recommend a course of action.

“I have no proposals from the chief of police. ... I’m not going to call a special meeting just to have a special meeting; it costs money.

“We can talk all we want to, until we’re blue in the face, but until he (the police chief) presents a plan” nothing can happen, Lambert said. “He has to present to the council any actions (he might recommend), and we will ratify.”

Theriot could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Liability insurance coverage for Sorrento’s police department ended on Nov. 19, when Risk Management, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Louisiana Municipal Association, stopped coverage of the department.

The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, as a stopgap measure, provided law enforcement free of charge through Dec. 31, then extended that until Jan. 7.

“He’s being gracious to do that,” Lambert said of Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley.

As for the situation of the Sorrento Police Department, “there’s no law that says you can’t patrol without police liability, but financially it’s not prudent,” Lambert said.

Lambert said he believes Sorrento is not financially able to maintain a police department. He said an option for Sorrento is to return to an unincorporated area of the parish.

Sorrento is a town of approximately 1,400 residents, with local outlets of small national restaurant chains and retailers, such as McDonald’s and Dollar General, but no large national chain presence. Its largest employer is Sorrento Lumber Company.

Councilman Randy Anny said he’s concerned that Sorrento has lost one source of revenue — fines once collected by the police department. Other major revenue sources are property taxes, occupational license fees and sales taxes.

Anny’s concerned, he said, that River Parishes Community College’s move from Sorrento to Gonzales in 2014 will cost Sorrento in sales tax revenues, as students and faculty eat their meals and run their errands elsewhere.

“We’ve got to have a short-term plan and a long-term plan and crunch numbers” to provide for law enforcement, Anny said.

“You can pay the sheriff for the short term; for the long term, you’ve got to get the Police Department up and running,” which could take as long as 10 months to hire people and train them, Anny said.

“I think it’s pertinent (to say) that all of this unfolded going on three months ago,” Wiley said.

When Wiley began providing patrols by sheriff’s deputies from Nov. 19 to the present, he said he “needed some discussion about what the town was going to do” for the long term.

“There’s been very little ... the sticking point remains the insurance,” Wiley said.

In December, Wiley gave a letter to the police chief outlining a proposal that, beginning Jan. 7 and continuing through April 1, the Sorrento Police Department provide daytime patrols Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Wiley said.

The Sheriff’s Office would patrol on evenings and weekends, to be reimbursed on an overtime basis, he said. As of Monday, the sheriff said he has received no specific feedback on his proposal.

“Something has to happen to create some sense of urgency in some of these elected officials to reckon with the obvious,” Wiley said.

The situation surrounding the law enforcement quandary in Sorrento was, in part, the impetus behind two recall efforts launched by Sorrento residents in November, one against Lambert and the other against Anny.