Incoming sheriff says he's being kept in dark

Incoming sheriff says he's being kept in dark

Credit: Houma Courier

Vernon Bourgeois' last day as sheriff will be June 30. He did not run for a second term.

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by Eric Heisig / Houma Couriere

wwltv.com

Posted on June 3, 2012 at 11:04 AM

The incoming sheriff claims he is not being allowed into the Terrebonne Sheriff's Office to review documents or prepare for his soon-to-start term, something he said he needs to do to make pending financial and employee decisions.

Jerry Larpenter, the parish's sheriff for 22 years, will return to the job at midnight on July 1. Sheriff Vernon Bourgeois decided last year to not run for a second term.

Questions have been raised, both during the election and in the months leading up to Bourgeois' announced retirement, about office spending and staffing levels.

“I want to know who's working there, what they are working on and what department they're assigned to,” Larpenter said.

Sources within the agency, who won't speak publicly over fear of losing their jobs, said there's uncertainty as employees wait for Larpenter to take over and decide who to keep.

Larpenter said there will be changes when he takes office but he has not said what those will be.

Transitions between an outgoing elected official and the new one have a mixed local history.

The switch is sometimes cordial, with the outgoing official opening his doors to the incoming official. But personality clashes or political rivalries sometimes make for little or no cooperation and that's been the case this time, Larpenter said.

“I was disappointed in the fact that more wasn't offered,” Larpenter said.

Bourgeois declined to comment.

THE TRANSITION PERIOD

The share of information between an outgoing and incoming official is designed to prevent the newcomer from being blind sided by looming problems. It is also an opportunity to learn how the office functions, what projects are pending and what contracts need to be addressed.

Brian Gaines, a professor at the University of Illinois, said the transition period that usually gets the most attention is the one between U.S. presidents.

With a few exceptions, that transition tends to be smooth, Gaines said, citing the one between Barack Obama's election and George W. Bush's departure.

“Presidents can't afford to be delayed when they take office,” Gaines said. “In case of an emergency, they have to hit the ground running. There is the sense that a president could be in a really grave crisis on the first day. They don't want have to figure out who to call.”

Transitions between officials in higher offices are studied the most, and Gaines said transitions between governors are also relatively smooth.

“With a sheriff, you don't want there to be any especially awkward transition,” Gaines said. “But it's still kind of a long shot that it would have serious consequences.”

Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said the transition between himself and Don Schwab, his predecessor, was smooth.

Before taking office in 2008, Claudet said he had “unrestricted access to the staff and to the information in the government.” This access, Claudet said, was helpful in making his first few months in office smooth.

“After I got in, of course, Don was no longer parish president, but he was always available if I needed advice,” Claudet said.

Larpenter opted out of the sheriff election in 2007, choosing instead to run against Claudet in a failed bid for parish president.

Bourgeois won the sheriff's job that same year.

Larpenter said he gave Bourgeois unlimited access to the Sheriff's Office prior to his taking over.

“I gave Vernon my office for two months,” Larpenter said. “I operated out of an itty-bitty office.”

THE FALLOUT

Larpenter and Bourgeois were once seen publicly as allies.

Bourgeois was Larpenter's chief deputy for several years and Larpenter endorsed his sheriff bid in the 2007 election, helping him defeat Will Torres.

Despite this, Larpenter said he has never been friends with Bourgeois. Asked about the endorsement, Larpenter said, “we're all wrong at some time in our life.”

Now, Larpenter said, the pair only communicates via Bill Dodd, the Sheriff's Office attorney.

Larpenter also said he had to file a public-records request, an option available to all residents, to find out how many people are employed by the Sheriff's Office.

Larpenter said he hasn't talked to Bourgeois since last year.

“He came to visit when he was going to find out I was going to run to sheriff,” Larpenter said.

THE BUDGET

Since the election, Larpenter has made several thinly veiled statements criticizing Bourgeois and his leadership over the past four years. Larpenter said he is a sheriff with an open-door policy, and he has criticized Bourgeois for frequent absences attributed to out-of-town trips.

As his return nears, Larpenter's statements have become more pointed, and he consistently points to Bourgeois' spending as a major concern.

According to a Courier report published in February, Bourgeois spent the nearly $9 million surplus that was there when Larpenter left office.

Lafayette accountant Buzz Andersen, who has prepared budgets for both Bourgeois and Larpenter, said Bourgeois will leave office at the end of June with a surplus of $2.5 million to $4 million, depending on tax collections. That won't be enough to keep the Sheriff's Office running without cutting spending or taking out loans to pay employees.

“We cannot sustain the number of employees I have now with the budget I have now,” Larpenter said.

“He hired an extra 100 people and bought material things we didn't need.”

EMPLOYEE WOES

Sheriff's Office employees are anxious to find out what the future holds, sources said. If budget cuts are necessary, it is unclear who will be the first to go.

It's also unclear which leadership posts will be shuffled because of political alliances to Bourgeois.

Because of civil-service protections, government employees are often unaffected when a new administration takes over, Gaines said.

But the Sheriff's Office doesn't fall under civil service, meaning its employees don't enjoy that protection.

Larpenter has not revealed what cuts will be made, but he did say the lack of information limits his ability to make those calls right now.

“It only hurts the office,” Larpenter said. “It doesn't hurt me whatsoever.”

OTHER EXAMPLES

This is not the first time a public official's transition period has been rocky. The most recent example is between Thibodaux Mayor Tommy Eschete and his opponent, Charles Caillouet.

Eschete, who bested Caillouet in the 2010 election, was the longtime City Council clerk and knew how the city's administration worked before he took office, he said.

Transition talks between Eschete and Caillouet lasted about 30 minutes, Eschete said.

“It was after the election,” Eschete said. “We spoke once after, and he said he would be going out of town and would get back with me.” Eschete said Caillouet didn't follow through on that promise.

Caillouet couldn't be reached for comment.

Eschete said the public did not suffer greatly because of the lack of communication with his predecessor, but he believes such talks would have helped smooth the way.

“(The right thing to do is to) get over the election and say ‘let me set up meetings with directors so you can ask.' We're talking about a process that should maybe take a month,” Eschete said. “That's the right thing to do, whether you like it or not politically. That didn't happen here.”

Larpenter said his previous experience as sheriff will come in handy as he takes over. While he may not know all the answers, he said he doesn't expect many snags.

“It doesn't do me any harm by not being there. I did it for 22 years,” Larpenter said. “I'm going to grab the bull by the horn and shake things up.”

Staff Writer Eric Heisig can be reached at 857-2202 or eric.heisig@houmatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter @HeisigHCDC.

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