Ascension Sheriff shocks Sorrento with offer of free police protection

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POSTED: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 6:00am

UPDATED: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 6:04am

Sorrento residents no longer have to fear that their town would resemble the wild, wild west. Not after the sheriff metaphorically rode in to the rescue Tuesday night.

Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley made a last-minute offer to provide police protection to the town at no cost through the end of 2013.

"Sheriff saved the day," Mayor Mike Lambert said. "I did not expect that offer from him. He walked in at 5:30, 5:45 and made that proposal, and I was not expecting that proposal."

Law enforcement, or the potential lack thereof, has been the focus of town politics for the last month, since Risk Management, Inc. gave notice that it was ending the police department's insurance policy. That policy was set to end at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. If the council did not approve a new policy by then, or contract out with the sheriff's office, Sorrento would have been without a law enforcement presence.

The council only received one insurance quote, through Evolution Insurance Brokers. It would have cost more than $67,000, more than double the price of the previous plan. But with the help of a longtime insurance broker, the council discovered significant problems with the policy. Councilman Donald Schexnaydre read a letter from the broker highlighting some of the biggest issues.

"This policy does not -- she bolded -- does not cover automobile liability," Schexnaydre stated. "In fact, coverage is specifically excluded."

Other problems with the policy included a personal guarantee, and the fact that Evolution, a surplus lines broker, did not name the company that would actually hold the policy.

The council rejected the policy unanimously.

Sheriff Wiley offered to provide a deputy and a detective to Sorrento at a cost of $37,000 for the remainder of the year. Both members of the council and residents found the terms unfavorable in the week since they were announced.

But for the first time since Sorrento's insurance was canceled last month, Sheriff Wiley made a public appearance at Tuesday's council meeting to say he would provide a deputy to the town without payment.

"I think everybody was hurrying to make deadlines and hurrying to make decisions, and to make sure there was safety and security for you," Sheriff Wiley told the packed crowd inside the council chambers. "And I wanted to take that pressure off of them and assure you that you're going to have an officer inside the town of Sorrento at least through the first of the year."

Sheriff Wiley said he reconsidered his stance Tuesday because most of Sorrento's elected officials were voted into office in just the last year. He said Sorrento is poised for a great period of growth, and he believed the town's leadership is the right group of people to usher that in.

"The businesses here that have invested already, and maybe even thinking about investing here, they have to know that this is a safe town," he added.

"With him coming in and saving us the money, it's going to help this town out," said Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot. "I certainly compliment him."

Theriot's department shut its doors late last night, because officers could not patrol if not insured. Most of his employees had resigned in the last couple weeks to look for jobs elsewhere. While he might be expected to be angry about having the sheriff take over duties that used to belong to him, Chief Theriot displayed the opposite emotion.

"The sheriff came in and went to bat for us," he said, "and it certainly helped us out. It was a shock.

"The citizens are protected. And that was my main goal, to make sure the citizens (would) be protected."

If the police department does not obtain a new insurance policy by December 31, Sorrento will have to sign a new contract with the sheriff's office. While Chief Theriot and Assistant Chief Ricky Smith look for a new policy, they will have to prove they are a new department. That may or may not include rehiring some of their former officers.

"We got to put something in place before we do that," Chief Theriot mentioned. "In other words, we got to look at rebuilding, revamping, getting our policies up to date, getting procedures up to date, getting a new hiring process. Make sure everybody is certified with everything under the sun before we even look at hiring."

Mayor Lambert would not commit to either buying insurance or forming a long-term partnership with the sheriff's office.

"I think that the insurance company is going to want to look at that revamp. And we'll look at that and we'll go from there," he said.

Chief Theriot said he is determined to find a good policy before the end of the year.

"We've reached out to LSU, we're reaching out to Southern University," he added. "They're going to look at helping us do, develop our policy and procedure manual, they're going to help us with the code of ethics manual, so that's going to help alleviate some of the issues and problems over me and the assistant chief. That'll allow us to sit back and start looking at how we're going to start."

No matter which route the council takes in January, "it's a win for the Town of Sorrento right now," Mayor Lambert said.

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