Here is the final chapter in the Weekly Citizen's discussion with Mike Lambert and his tenure as mayor of the Town of Sorrento.
Lambert discussed haunting controversies in Sorrento that occurred when he and the "new council" took over in 2013 in Part 1. Then in last week's Part 2, Lambert spoke more candidly about disbanding the police force and troubles that were faced head-on in that difficult process.
Part 3, the 'final chapter,' digs a little deeper about Lambert as a man, his roots and interests. Ask him how many babies he's delivered if you get a chance. Lastly, the old history of the town and Lambert's forecast for the future of Sorrento comes into play. Enjoy!
ML: I can't scientifically say that shutting the police department down was the problem, but we had people had a lot of concerns about it.
The sheriff had taken over in Donaldsonville. I don't know the exact conditions, but the City of Donaldsonville at that time was having financial problems. So, the sheriff took over and it worked so good 25 years later the city of Donaldsonville don't want no police department. We did the same--a similar model that Donaldsonville did.
I haven't had a problem. People said they've seen a police car rolling around town, and they never saw one back then. Now they patrol. They ride the neighborhoods. They make relations with the people. It's good, community policing.
It's not a speed trap, and I also told people I didn't think we needed the revenue to maintain the city based on traffic fines. I approved it.
We collect little, if any traffic fines now. The sheriff collects it. You know what he does, but we didn't need the revenue for the town to survive.
Let's talk about the lumber company. There used to be a big lumber yard, right?
In the beginning? When the town was formed?
That was in the 1920s. Sorrento was a lumber town mainly in the 20s and early 30s. We got a former mayor. She did a book on Sorrento. Brenda Melancon. She was an employee of the Weekly for years. Miss Brenda wrote two books on the history of Sorrento, and she's probably our best historian.
Melancon actually resigned as mayor in 2011. According to a WAFB article she stated she's tired of "bad news" coming out of Sorrento and "doesn't want to be a part of it."
ML: She knows this place. She can tell you when the mills closed. These were cypress mills. The swamps were full of cypress and they basically just eliminated it. From my understanding--from what I've been told--they basically ran out of wood. That's what happened with the mills.
But you guys have a lumber yard in town?
We have Sorrento Lumber Co. It's a retail. It's been around since the late 40s as a lumber distributer.
Is it a good source of tax revenue?
He's our largest taxpayer in Sorrento.
What about the restaurants? McDonalds, Waffle House?
They all contribute. I don't have the exact figures. But you have McDonalds, Waffle House, Super Stop, Speedy Junction, Popeye's. All those are right around the interstate, and they are our most reliable source. The storm kind of did a roller-coaster on our sales tax. Immediately after the storm for a couple of months we were way down. In December we started seeing a good uptick. I thinnk a lot of that had to do with recovery. A lot of people buying materials, buying cars that were flooded. We're seeing it kind of settle down now a little bit.
Is there a car dealership in Louisiana?
No. But in Louisiana it's where you live where the taxes are paid.
When was Sorrento Incorporated a as a town?
The Town of Sorrento was incorporated in 1956. September 11, 1956. They had a mayor and council in that time. In fact, my dad was an original councilperson. I grew up in this place.
So there's some pride in that?
Yeah, there is! I've watched the town--at one time we had ballparks. We had a lot more businesses. We don't have any operating parks right now. We lost a lot of business, but we had a business shift because of the interstate and because of the new John Leblanc Boulevard that took some business off Main Street.
But we are seeing now we've had several businesses express interest in coming to Sorrento, and we're working with one starting the process of construction real soon we hope. That is going to increase our sales tax.
What kind of business is it?
It's going to be a Racetrack convenient store. We've had several developers come talk to us. Something we're doing right now is a complete re-write of our planning and zoning laws. We hired Rickey Compton who was the parish's--kind of controversial, but if you can work for the parish, you can work for us.
I heard he was good.
He's very good. We've hired him to be our consultant to help rewrite planning and zoning for the town. Our planning and zoning hasn't been updated very much since 1996, so we're in the process of updating our planning and zoning and subdivision regulations and all that. Hopefully in the next couple of months our planning and zoning board will be presenting to us their approvals of the changes and we'll be voting on whether to make these changes, as far as the council is concerned.
I'm looking forward to that, and I think a lot of people are. We're really cleaning up a lot of stuff. We've had a number of developers who are interested. We're seeing a lot of commercial property being offered, which hasn't been offered before. It's encouraging.
Lambert takes a minute to stretch in his office seat. At this point the interview has gone for over a half hour. He's very tall.
Mike, let me get a picture for the paper?
No pictures. I'm just getting comfortable. That's just a comfortable position for my back. I've got three discs in my lower back messed up.
How'd that happen?
I was at work. I hurt it at the fire department. So they had to retire me.
What do you do for fun? Do you have any hobbies or anything?
Do you play a sport?
I did. I was refereeing basketball a lot. I'm die-hard LSU football--football, baseball, basketball--I love sports.
Didn't you tell me you have a son that's going to Brother Martin or something?
That's my nephew.
Did you go to college?
Yeah, I went to LSU.
No [laughs]. Actually, I got my associate's degree in Fire Science. I always wanted to be a firefighter, but at that time it was all volunteers. I served as a volunteer here for over thirty years. I was the chief for 15. I was President of the Louisiana Fire Chief's Association.
I served on the board for just about ten years. I'm retired from Sorrento. Then, somebody asked me to do my trucking thing. Then, somebody asked me to run for mayor, and I told them 'no.' I enjoy retirement and playing with my trucks. I was happy, and this person rode me and rode me. Several others started riding me. Finally I saw something on TV about Sorrento, and I said I'll run. Had no expectations. Came in second place. 50 votes separated the three of us.
Are you married?
Are you divorced?
No. I've never gotten married.
Oh, okay. So no children?
Not that I know of.
[Laughs]. So the future of Sorrento is--
--I think the future of Sorrento, if we continue to do what we are doing, I purposely made to do the changes very slowly. I feel we are laying a foundation.
Let me go back. When we came to office, this town was a runaway train. We had to stop the train. That's the best analogy I can give. Stop the train and start it up again. We had a very bad image. A lot of political agencies didn't want to have anything to do with us. The prior administration had very poor relations. The people in the Town of Sorrento had really kind of written us off. They wanted to disincorporate, like "Y'all can;t do nothing!" A lot of others knew it as a speed trap. So it had a bad, bad reputation.
That was one of the things--to clean up our act. We worked on that, and I think we're getting there. You know, we run this like a business. We make a business decision for what's best in the town! We're not there yet. I've still got problems with streets. I've still got problems with drainage. We pay as we go. One of the things I did not do was to add any debt. If we couldn't pay as we go, especially in the times we had, going into debt was the worst thing we could do. So, we trimmed things and pay it as we go.
We've done more ditches and stuff that had been done in years. When we had surplus money in the budget we rented machines and equipment and started digging. We did a systematic approach, starting at the low end of town and we're working our way up. We're not finished yet. We have applied for a grant through DOTD. It's for over $300,000 with a 10 percent match to redo all of our roadside ditches.
Now, the parish does the major drainage and the lateral drainage. But with that we hope to do every ditch and clean every culvert out, clean or replace culverts as needed. We submitted paperwork on May 1st.
So that means you guys pay 10 percent of up to $300,000 worth of work?
Our cost-share would be about $30,000.
You could probably do a lot of good with that?
A lot of good! I can pretty much clean every ditch in Sorrento. And clean and replace culverts.
Mike, important question. Does Sorrento count as the Pelican Point area?
That's a mail route. Certain areas out in Pelican Point have Sorrento addresses. That's just because of the post office. It's not in the city limits.
People are confused about that.
Yeah, I know. I got a call from a very irate lady about a sinkhole. I said ma'am, that's not in the city limits of Sorrento. It's not in the incorporated area of Sorrento. I said the parish will have to address that. Call Ascension DPW! Man, they had Channel 33 calling me. Channel 2 was calling me. They didn't believe me! It's not in the city limits! It's not ours!