Sorrento council stymied, for now, in abolishing police department

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Sorento Town Hall Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Sorento Town Hall

A divided Town Council narrowly approved a $1.14 million budget for the new 2014-15 fiscal year Tuesday but was stymied in a bid to defund parts of the town’s troubled Police Department and terminate its sole officer when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

The attempt to leave the department with no provisions to pay for an officer, a police chief or other expenses failed over public notice concerns raised by Councilman Randy Anny and shared by Town Attorney Matthew Percy.

Had the council majority succeeded, the department could not have funded any officers four months ahead of a possible Nov. 4 ballot measure asking Sorrento voters to abolish the department and the town’s elected chief.

Gov. Bobby Jindal signed Senate Bill 601 into law Thursday allowing the council to call for that election. The chief’s office has been vacant since the former chief, Earl Theriot Jr., resigned in February shortly before pleading guilty to lying to an FBI agent.

Councilwoman Patti Poche proposed an amendment shifting $132,000 from the department’s proposed $367,350 budget to pay for Sheriff’s Office protection from July 1 to Nov. 30.

The amendment also would have moved the chief’s salary for five months to town drainage funds, zeroed out line items for a police officer and part-time clerk salaries and left about $143,000 after other reductions.

Anny warned the council that such major changes after the proposed budget had been advertised in the newspaper could open the budget to legal challenge and would reflect poorly in the public’s eyes. He said the changes should have been made at an earlier meeting before advertisements ran on the public hearing and final vote Tuesday.

“You just ran this in the newspaper saying for two weeks that this is your budget. Now it comes back and it’s like a sneaky move to sneak this in. That’s the way it looks, and that’s way it’s going to look to anybody out there in the public,” Anny said.

Assistant Police Chief Ricky Smith charged the move would close the department.

“Y’all basically shutting down the Police Department before it comes up to the people to vote on shutting down the Police Department,” Smith said. “Basically, that’s what y’all doing.”

Poche, who made her amendment after a public comment period on the budget during which no one from the public spoke, later rescinded her motion.

Facing an impending July 1 deadline to adopt a budget and with the recommendation of Percy, the council voted 3-2 to adopt the original proposed budget. Poche and Councilman Donald Schexnaydre voted “no.”

Mayor Mike Lambert, who has advocated to end the department and the elected chief in favor of Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office protection, said after the meeting that the proposed budget amendment will be brought up again, likely coming up for a final vote sometime in mid to late July.

He disputed Anny’s charge the amendment was a “sneaky” move, chalking it up to his and the council’s inexperience with the budget process.

“I screwed up. I’ll tell you that now. I should have taken the money out then,” Lambert said, referring to an earlier budget meeting.

“We’re not professional politicians like Mr. Anny, who’s been here years and knows how to play the system. That’s fine. That’s fine.”

Lambert and four of five council members, including Poche, were seated in office for the first time July 1, 2013.

Percy and Anny had suggested a tack similar to the one Lambert is now proposing, saying if the council wanted to pursue Poche’s amendment, the council should adopt the budget as proposed and then bring up the amendment at a later meeting.

After the budget was adopted Tuesday, the council tried to take an initial step on that path by attempting to introduce the budget amendment. That, however, required amending the council meeting agenda Tuesday, a change that, under the state’s open meetings law, needs a unanimous vote of members present.

Anny was the sole vote on the five-member council against amending the agenda, blocking the move.