Mayor Mike Lambert and Town of Sorrento sue East Ascension Drainage Board

Mayor Mike Lambert (file photo)

The contentious relationship between the Town of Sorrento and East Ascension Consolidated Gravity Drainage District No. 1 (commonly referred to as EA Drainage District) is one of long-standing.  Cash-strapped, Sorrento elected officials have pleaded with the Board, and successive parish presidential administrations, to provide relief.  Unsatisfied, Mayor Mike Lambert filed a lawsuit against EA Drainage yesterday seeking to have the District’s “continuing duty and obligation to clean and maintain the roadside ditches and culverts within” Sorrento recognized by judicial declaration.

Lambert also filed in his official capacity and as a citizen/property owner in Sorrento where his home took on water during the Great Flood of August 2016.  The case was randomly allotted to Division A of the 23rd Judicial District Court where Judge Jason Verdigets presides.

Received by the District and Parish President Clint Cointment’s administration hours before the District’s regularly scheduled meeting for July, an item was added to the agenda and taken up in Executive Session along with ongoing litigation against Livingston Parish.  Councilman Joel Robert, whose District 2 includes the town, would inform that the District’s legal counsel has been instructed to respond to Sorrento’s Petition for Declaratory Judgment once the meeting reconvened.

According to the petition “the Town of Sorrento sent correspondence seeking acknowledgement by the District that it is obligated to clean and maintain the roadside ditches and culverts within the municipal boundaries of the Town, on the same equal basis as those roadside ditches and culverts located in the unincorporated areas located within the District.”  The District comprises the entirety of Ascension Parish east of the Mississippi River.  Those demand letters were sent on March 1 and June 5 (2019).

On October 7, 2019 a 6-3 vote by the District approved a “Not to Exceed” amount of $400,000 for Sorrento Ditch Maintenance (Sorrento had requested $417,000 in work).  The vote came after months of consideration in multiple Executive Sessions, years of lobbying by Sorrento Councilman Donald Schexnaydre, and the threat of legal action from the municipality.  Sorrento’s council authorized the suit against the District only days before.

Two of the six-vote majority would lose their council/commission seats at the ballot box five days hence, two of the three-vote minority would suffer the same fate.  With a relatively-seeming paltry $17,000 separating the sides, one would have assumed the deal would get done.  What derailed the negotiations?

According to sources on both sides of the current controversy, the District wanted Sorrento to rescind the demand letter and forego the filing of legal action.  Additionally, the District and former presidential administration wanted to avoid anything like the judicial declaration being sought by Mayor Lambert’s lawsuit which includes:

  1. That the court declare that the District “owes a continuing duty to clean and maintain the roadside ditches and culverts located within its statutory boundaries, including but not limited to those roadside ditches and culverts located within the municipal boundaries of the Town of Sorrento;”
  2. A declaration that the District “owes a continuing duty and obligation to treat all property and citizen/electors located within its statutory boundaries equally, including but not limited to, the property and citizen/electors located within the municipal boundaries of the Town of Sorrent.”

Even more distasteful according to the town, the District wanted a clause absolving it of any damage done during the execution of any drainage works, potential exposing Sorrento to costs it could little afford to bear in the first place.

For decades, going back to the mid-1980s when a perpetual sales tax was approved in support of the EA Drainage, the District’s mantra was that only Major Drainage works could be performed within the municipal limits of Sorrento and the other east bank municipality, the City of Gonzales.  Every citizen of Sorrento pays the same 5-mill property tax and 1/2% sales tax as every other resident of East Bank Ascension Parish.

Major/Minor Drainage myth debunked

There is little, if any, support for that spurious proposition.

But, the countervailing argument might render Sorrento’s plea meaningless.  As a legislative body, can the 10-member (comprised of ten east bank Parish Council members) East Ascension Drainage District be compelled to expend tax dollars to remedy the town’s drainage problems (or any drainage problems for that matter)?

Even if  Sorrento and Mayor Lambert “win” the lawsuit, EA Drainage District must still authorize expenditure of the funds necessary to clean the town’s roadside ditches and maintain its culverts.