Sorrento’s mayor, four council members ask police chief to step down

Sorrento’s mayor and four of five Town Council members called for Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. to resign Monday and disputed the chief’s claims that the council and mayor “colluded against his department to ensure its demise.”

A joint letter to the town’s residents was issued by the five Sorrento officials on the same day that Theriot and Assistant Chief Ricky Smith started daytime patrols without insurance coverage amid a running public dispute over the Police Department’s future.

Theriot, an elected chief who started his fourth term July 1, said Monday that he had read the letter. He was unmoved.

“Yeah, they can stick it,” Theriot said. “I ain’t planning on going nowhere.”

The joint letter says Theriot’s decision to start patrols without insurance leaves the town in an untenable situation and liable for claims against the department.

“Such actions place the very existence of the Town of Sorrento in jeopardy and cannot be allowed to continue,” the letter says.

Mayor Mike Lambert and council members Wanda Bourgeois, Marvin Martin, Patti Poche and Donald Schexnaydre signed the letter. Councilman Randy Anny did not sign the letter and did not return a call for comment Monday.

“Chief Theriot’s continued resistance against what has become inevitable can only do further harm to the Town of Sorrento,” the letter says. “Had we at our disposal a mechanism to remove him from office under the Lawrason Act, we would undertake to do so.”

Under the Lawrason Act, Schexnaydre and other town officials have said, they lack the power to force Theriot out of office.

Schexnaydre said Monday the council is not trying to do anything to the chief personally but is responding to his actions. The councilman said he is bothered by the fact that since the town’s insurer, Risk Management Inc., announced in late October that it would be canceling the department’s professional liability insurance Nov. 19, the problem has been everyone’s but Theriot’s.

“He has never said he is responsible for his own department and not having insurance,” said Schexnaydre, one of four first-term council members who took office with the new mayor on July 1.

At the time of the cancellation announcement, Risk Management officials said only that the Police Department failed to meet underwriting requirements.

Some town officials have attributed the cancellation to a high number of claims against the department.

Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, in a deal with the council hours before insurance coverage was to end, agreed to provide free police protection. As that deal was set to expire, the council agreed Jan. 7 to pay the Sheriff’s Office for police coverage on weeknights and 24 hours per day on weekends.

That deal, which lasts until the end of March, leaves a gap in protection from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. The sheriff refused to cover those times while Theriot and Smith remained on the payroll.

Theriot, who had earlier refused to patrol without insurance, said he changed his mind last week after a planned meeting with Wiley — proposed during the Town Council meeting Jan. 7 — did not materialize.

Theriot said he wants to calm public concerns by patrolling, asking what is the greater risk, Smith and him patrolling without insurance or the town without police protection.

“We just want to make sure the citizens have some protection out there if they need it,” he said.

Theriot said that police calls were responded to Monday, including a burglar alarm that went off when a door was probably blown open.

Theriot and some council members said they have tried to find new insurance coverage for the department. But Mayor Lambert said six companies have turned down the department.

“Nobody wants to write it. It’s too big of a risk,” he said.

Days before Risk Management’s policy was to end last year, the council tabled action on the one insurance offer it has formally considered.

The insurer had offered a price of $67,692, more than twice what the town was paying Risk Management. Lambert said that policy also had exclusions that meant it would have cost upward of $200,000 per year to cover the department fully.

In an added setback, Risk Management informed Lambert on Monday that it was canceling insurance on Theriot’s and Smith’s vehicles. The vehicles are not insured for patrol work anyway, just administrative duties.

The council and mayor’s letter Monday underscored the insurance problems, saying they have no confidence in Theriot’s ability to get replacement insurance “for the simple reason that there is none to be had, certainly not at a price that would not bankrupt the Town of Sorrento.”

But Theriot said that while insurance companies do not want to cover just the Police Department, they are interested in covering the whole town, and applications are being filled out.

“They don’t know what they’re talking about. They have no clue,” Theriot said of town officials who signed the letter. “We have gotten responses back from other agencies thinking about it.”

Theriot said he plans to continue patrols until the department has new insurance or a deal is reached with the sheriff for added police protection.

See the text of the letter from the Town Council and mayor here.