Sorrento Ordinance 9-01, which prohibits any police officer from “taking his vehicle outside of Ascension Parish unless it is for official business,” was intended to be the focal point of Tuesday’s Town Meeting. The ordinance became a hot topic when it was learned that Sorrento Police Officer James Bell had been flagged 737 times in a 64 day period while travelling at speeds in excess of 75 mph in his police vehicle. Many of those instances occurred outside of Ascension Parish and Councilman Donald Schexnaydre came to the meeting looking for answers. He left disappointed.
“I want to understand your department’s policy on officers driving their units home when they live outside the Town of Sorrento,” Schexnaydre told Chief Theriot.
Theriot’s presented a copy of Attorney General Opinion 09-0013 which was rendered on January 27, 2010 in response to a request from Sorrento’s then mayor, Blake LeBlanc.
“I have inherent power since Sorrento is a Lawrason Act municipality,” Theriot declared as he held up the AG’s opinion as final authority. “I don’t know anything about the ordinance,” he stated as he confirmed that his policy is to allow officers to take their units home if they live within 35 miles of Sorrento.
Mayor Mike Lambert then joined the discussion, asking if a mere opinion trumps the law embodied in the ordinance at issue. Ordinance 9-01 reads, in pertinent part:
- No officer shall take his vehicle outside Ascension Parish unless it is for official business;
- No officer may use a police vehicle to go to and from home unless the officer is full-time and either resides in Ascension Parish or is on-call as result of an emergency in the town; and
- The chief of police shall establish a policy concerning the use and maintenance of police vehicles by officers, whether on-duty or off-duty, subject to the foregoing rules.
“Isn’t it part of your job to be aware of the ordinances as Chief of Police?” asked resident, Doris Lee of Theriot.
“Not when they don’t make me aware of it,” responded the police chief who claimed not to have a book of ordinances as he again referred to the AG’s opinion.
“But that’s only an opinion, Chief,” began Mayor Lambert.
“Challenge me in court,” Theriot dared the mayor.
Councilman Schexnaydre inquired as to whether the police department had a written policy with regard to the issue.
“Challenge me in court,” Theriot again said, becoming more defiant.
Councilman Randy Anny joined the fray in Chief Theriot’s defense by reading part of AG Op. 09-0013.
“The (Louisiana) Supreme Court recognized that a chief of police of a Lawrason Act municipality…has inherent power of supervision over the police department…This authority includes assigning a police department vehicle to himself for around the clock use in conjunction with his 24-hour duty and extends likewise to assigning vehicles to other police personnel for use in their official duties, such as 24-hour ‘on call’ status.”
Anny concluded that, “Once the municipality turns the unit over to the police chief it’s up to his discretion.”
The AG’s opinion goes on to state that “the mayor and council may restrict use of police vehicles outside of the town’s corporate limits, if such use is not for an official law enforcement use.”
Councilmen Anny and Schexnaydre then engaged in a heated exchange which resulted in a heated Mayor Lambert.
He declared, “Mr. Anny, you’re out of order!”
The council’s attention then turned to the monitoring system in police vehicles which flagged Officer Bell’s driving habits.
According to Chief Theriot the system costs $3,000/year and was intended to monitor the use of official vehicles.
However, “No policies or procedures exist with regard to monitoring the tracking system. At one time I would receive the data from the system and the town attorney, auditor and council also had access, but I took everyone else off,” he said.
Theriot claimed that he receives alerts to his cell phone when the tracking system flags an officer travelling in excess of 75 mph, but there is no police manpower devoted to monitoring the system on a regular basis.
“Why do we incur the expense if we don’t use it?” asked Councilman Schexnaydre. “Is it a waste of money?”
“Yeah,” responded Chief Theriot.
Councilman Anny made the argument that the system could be useful to identify instances when an officer might be confronted with a life threatening situation on the street, claiming to have first-hand experience since he has been a commissioned officer for 29 years.
“Does anyone else on the council have 29 years police experience?” Anny inquired of his colleagues. “Do you have 29 years experience?” his inquiry turned to Mayor Lambert. “No, you don’t,” Anny dismissively told the mayor.
“Well,” began Lambert “who gets the data identifying an officer in trouble?”
“Nobody,” answered Chief Theriot.
The Creole has also confirmed that Councilman Randy Anny informed his fellow council members that the FBI has exonerated him of any wrongdoing in the ongoing investigation into Sorrento affairs.
The investigation was begun by Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office after it learned Sorrento paid $77,500 to Design & Build Consultants LLC and little, if any work had been performed on the subject contract one year later.