Governor signs bill allowing Sorrento voters to abolish police department

Bill allows council to address problems

Gov. Bobby Jindal signed legislation Thursday allowing the Town Council to ask voters to abolish the elected office of police chief and the Police Department, weighing in on the turmoil that has roiled the town.

Senate Bill 601, introduced by state Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, at the behest of town’s mayor, sailed through Senate and House and was sent to Jindal’s desk May 30.

Sorrento Mayor Mike Lambert asked for the legislation after Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. resigned Feb. 7. The resignation came as a requirement of his plea agreement with federal prosecutors who accused him of lying to an FBI agent about inappropriate sexual contact with a woman who had made a 911 call to the department.

Theriot is scheduled for sentencing July 11. He faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and other conditions.

The newly minted law gives the Town Council, with the recommendation of the mayor, the power to call for an election to abolish the office of chief of police, the police department or both.

The law also allows the town to contract with another law enforcement agency if voters abolish the chief’s office, the department or both.

Lambert said Thursday he believes a majority of the five-member Town Council will take the steps to put such a measure on the ballot.

Meg Casper, spokeswoman for Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said the town has until July 23 to get a proposition on the Nov. 4 ballot.

“We don’t have to put it on the ballot in November,” Lambert said. “My understanding is we can wait until the next (election) cycle.”

The Nov. 4 ballot already will ask Sorrento voters to decide on a special election to fill the remainder of Theriot’s term, which ends June 30, 2017.

The unusual set of circumstances involving the new law and the unexpired term lays out a number of scenarios.

If voters abolish the chief’s position, the position goes away when Theriot’s term ends, or when the post becomes vacant, whichever occurs first.

Lambert noted that if the town doesn’t have a police chief after Nov. 4 — and no candidates have yet announced for the job — then the position becomes an appointed one and, as such, can be abolished.

Amedee said if just one person qualifies to run for Theriot’s seat in November, the chief’s post will remain in place until the end of Theriot’s term or until that person resigns.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Casper, whose office oversees the administration of elections in the state, declined to comment on how the new law and potential dual elections on Nov. 4 would play out. She referred questions to the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.

“Unfortunately, our office is unable to speculate on the implications of these specific election outcomes,” said Steven Hartmann, spokesman for Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell, state government’s top lawyer, in an email.