"As far as the council was concerned, the four of us, that was myself, Don Schexnaydre, Wanda Bourgeois, Patti Poche and Marvin Martin we all stuck together. We did things to eliminate the police department. We eliminated funding for it. We chose not to appoint a chief of police and let the governor appoint one. The governor didn't even appoint one [laughs], so you know it was like, 'No, you don't need a police department.'"
THE ISSUE: The Town of Sorrento in Ascension Parish is battling bizarre and awful stigmas that were created by the now defunct police force and former mayor.
LOCAL IMPACT: Mayor Mike Lambert has opened up about the struggles the town and himself had to endure during his first term to restore it back to a certain level of respectability. This is Part 2 of a three-part series.
Last week the Weekly Citizen published Part 1 on a series featuring re-elected Mayor of the Town of Sorrento Mike Lambert. Lambert decided to tell the tale about what Sorrento was like before and his tumultuous beginnings in office (what he referred to as a nightmare). Here he shares some of the outcome from obstacles overcome. Then the flood came.
However, Lambert is still striving to make Sorrento better, ridding the town of stigmas that former leaders and the police force created. And Lambert has four more years in front of him. He left off in Part 1 where the town ultimately voted out the police department in 2014.
WC: What's the population of Sorrento?
ML: Just under 1500. 1400, something like that.
How many officers were there on the [disbanded police] force?
There was a total of eight. With officers and clerical personnel. They had a very bad reputation. It was bad. People feared them. There was no control over them. They did whatever they wanted. They also did intimidate us [the new council]. They had us under surveillance at times, things like that.
As far as the council was concerned, the four of us, that was myself, Don Schexnaydre, Wanda Bourgeois, Patti Poche and Marvin Martin we all stuck together. We did things to eliminate the police department. We eliminated funding for it. We chose not to appoint a chief of police and let the governor appoint one. The governor didn't even appoint one [laughs], so you know it was like, "No, you don't need a police department."
And the people voted it out. We contracted with the sheriff and it was the best thing we've ever done. Since the sheriff has taken over--my complaints to law enforcement--I'll be honest with you. I was getting, prior to the sheriff's office taking over in November of '13, I was getting two to three complaints a week. Of those, probably over a month's period of time I was referring two or three for criminal investigation for activities that people were alleging the police department was doing. That's how bad it was.
And then the judges made a decision. The courts and the parish made a decision in September of 2013 to dispense almost all their pending criminal trials and pending traffic cases. And that was over 400 cases. That was because they felt the officers had no credibility in testifying. Pretty strong! That's just the police department.
Right after we took office, say a couple months in I was subject to a recall. I don't even know if they got any signatures. I have no clue. Apparently I hit a nerve, which didn't bother me, you know.
Lambert is telling the truth. A 2013 news article by Cheryl Mercedes says that two Sorrento residents had 180 days to get 348 signatures for the state to approve a recall election. This was not obtained. And it had everything to do with eliminating the police department. The same article says a petition to recall Councilman Randy Anny was filed the same week, which Lambert also mentions in the interview.
WC: What kind of nerve? What was the issue?
ML: They couldn't even give a good reason why I was being recalled. I'm supposed to be some political kingpin and have all kind of connections. This town isn't big enough to have a vendetta. We took office and there was no transition. They wouldn't let us near here to look at records and try to do a transition.
They didn't approve their budget until like a week or two before we took office.
This is the former council?
This is the former council. We inherited an $87,000 deficit in that budget, and that first year we went to work on that budget. We turned it into a $152,000 surplus.
How'd you do it?
Eliminating the police department. Part of it. Part of it was just belt tightening. Part of it was running it as a business instead of somebody's piggy bank. We told a lot of people, "No, we can't do those things." Had we not done what we did, this town would've had a bout six months of operating money left. This town would be bankrupt.
What happens if it goes bankrupt?
From my understanding how that would be I think the inspector general or one of those groups would come in and actually handle our day-to-day finances. Basically, they would approve the bills and tell us what we can and can't buy. I think that's what would have happened.
It didn't happen that way. We turned things around. They had an audit which shows about nine or ten different things that Sorrento didn't do. We had [problems] in utilities. We had $34,000 of outstanding debt to collect. We collected about $22,000 of it. We had to write off $10,000-$12,000 of it. Then we went after some more. So, we cut that down.
They hadn't done anything for like seven years, and the legislative auditor was really coming down. Just the way we did business. We didn't have a fiscal policy. How would we do our business? How we bought things. So we instituted a requisition where they come in, they write down why they need what they need and then a purchase order system. We did that.
The second year, we had another surplus. Last year we had the storm. But we had built up seven to eight months of operating money, a reserve. So we pretty much have weathered the flood, and now we are doing our FEMA reimbursements.
Had we not--had we continued that path--this town probably wouldn't have had any money to pay its bills for the flood fight. So I mean, it's been those types of things.
Yeah! we tightened our belt and we watch what we spent. We had equipment in the back, back there. I inherited one DPW worker. That's all I had when I started here. He was pert-time, I believe. Grass hadn't been cut. At that time we had three tractors. Two of them weren't working. Right before we took office the parish gave them a dump truck. Our backhoe didn't work properly.
The first year of savings we ended up buying a new piece of equipment at $60,000. Paid cash for it.
How many workers do you have now with DPW?
I've got seven. We use a combination of full-time and part-time employees. And we use a combination of parish workers who work Monday through Thursday for the parish. We hired them to come work for us on Fridays and Saturdays. These were mostly grass cutters.
We don't have a whole lot of money right now to repair streets. Our budget's tight. We did a 90-10 budget. We spend 90 percent and save 10. And that's what I've been doing since. We're just tightening our belt! People want good politics and good government but yet, "take care of me." If I do it for you, I've got to do it for everybody. Sorrento's too small, [laughs]. They see things!
The four council members, we work well together. We disagree, but as a whole we work well together.
At the time of the interview Marvin Martin still served on the council, however Randi Sutton replaced Martin on July 3 when Lambert and the rest of the council began another term.
ML: We did a lot of good. I'd say that we put this town in a position where it can survive. Hiring the sheriff was the best thing we ever did. We haven't been involved in any lawsuit since the sheriff took over. I've had just a handful of complaints about his service, and most of those were resolved almost immediately. In fact all of them were. There was some resolution to the situation.
Our crime numbers are down. Actually, when the sheriff took over our sales tax revenue increased by 2 percent.
A lot of people told me they wouldn't come to Sorrento because of our police department. I can't scientifically say that that was because of it, but we noticed a 2 percent increase almost immediately!
End of Part 2