City split on PR firm for police issue

A rift between different factions of Forest Lake city leadership on the contract law enforcement issue has been further outlined this month as both sides react to the public conversation surrounding the city’s payments to a public relations firm to handle the city’s response on the topic.

While critics have claimed that the way the city began working with St. Paul-based Zipko Strategy was an attempt to circumvent government transparency, defenders of the move have insisted that the city’s business with the firm is not out of the ordinary.

PR questions

Public discussion of the issue began Feb. 27, when Forest Lake resident Jeff Gort (who is married to Forest Lake Police Department administrative assistant Lynn Gort) spoke during the open forum at the evening’s Forest Lake City Council meeting. Gort claimed to have spoken with Zipko Strategy owner Mike Zipko about the terms of Zipko Strategy’s deal with the city and asserted that firm was being used to “spin the city’s position toward the removal of the Forest Lake Police Department.” Zipko has been involved with many of the city’s media releases regarding the Personnel Committee’s Jan. 18 request for a proposal from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for contracted law enforcement. If the proposal is approved, the local Police Department could be dissolved.

“I find it absolutely despicable that you are using my tax dollars to pay a PR firm to forward this agenda and pursue this matter,” Gort said. “It is wasteful and unnecessary.”

A video of Gort’s remarks was shared on local social media pages, most prominently by Councilwoman Mara Bain, who posted it to her official council Facebook page.

City Administrator Aaron Parrish said it is not uncommon for the city to forgo a bid process and work directly with private businesses for services, a fact confirmed by city invoices. In the city’s invoice for January, along with a payment of $2,800 to Zipko Strategy, expenses ran the gamut from $221.81 spent at Staples to $3,068 to Verizon Wireless, along with many other expenditures.

“We (work with businesses) for services all the time as long as we can find ways to allocate it within the existing budget,” Parrish remarked.

Mayor Ben Winnick said he didn’t see any issue with utilizing Zipko’s services. He and Parrish said the purpose of the firm is to help with distributing information and answering questions about the proposal request, not to advocate for or against using the Sheriff’s Office instead of the Police Department.

“Cities use PR firms all the time,” Winnick said. “I don’t think we’re doing anything unusual. I think their biggest purpose is to help calm the public.”

Parrish also noted that Zipko does not have a contract with the city. Instead, the city is operating under a scope of services proposal sent to the city by Zipko. Under the scope of services, Zipko is paid at a rate of $175 per hour for work done related to the contract law enforcement issue. The scope specifies that Zipko’s work for the city will not exceed a price point of $4,375 for January and February and won’t exceed $3,500 for March and April, with any additional work on the topic beyond April to be decided upon after future discussions with the city. In addition to its $2,800 invoice for January, the firm has invoiced the city $1,750 for work completed in February; in all, the invoices record 26 hours performed by Zipko for the city during those months. The invoices and Parrish confirmed that the work done by Zipko has included media outreach and time spent assisting in the creation of city messaging about the request and Winnick’s newspaper column and public statement on the subject.

“We dictate the billings based on how much we choose to utilize the service,” Parrish explained.

Origins

Parrish said that in late 2016, he was told there was some interest from the then-current City Council in the option of contracting for law enforcement.

“This was a topic they might want to explore,” he said, adding that he felt that a PR firm would help the city manage its messages to the media and the public, as he knew the topic of changing law enforcement structure would likely invite a lot of public interest and scrutiny.

When asked which council member or members asked him about the topic, Parrish said he could not recall the exact origin of the discussion. Email records obtained by The Times in a public data request show that Nov. 14, 2016, the Monday after Election Day, Parrish sent an email to Councilman Michael Freer and then-Mayor-elect Winnick to let them know that city staff was going to contact Zipko Strategy about PR services. Parrish told The Times that Assistant City Administrator Dan Undem was aware of Zipko’s work after previously working with the firm in a former position.

“Recognizing that it (a request for a proposal) might come, we did start working with (Zipko) in advance of the Personnel Committee meeting,” Parrish said.

Bain said she doesn’t object to the idea of working with a PR firm to help manage the city’s messaging. The only trouble, she said, is that she doesn’t believe Zipko’s services have objectively presented information to the public.

“The message that’s been presented by the city is one that’s been supportive of contract services and advocating a city of Forest Lake’s size going to a contract service model,” she said, adding that in her opinion, the language in the Zipko-vetted messaging – specifically the amount of positive attributes ascribed to contract law enforcement – is trying to sway residents to the reasonableness of giving up their Police Department. “It seems to be a crafted message to prepare the public for a decision.”

Messaging

Two of the Zipko emails obtained by The Times contained language that, though it would ultimately not make it into the city’s public messaging about the department, seems to suggest that the original tone of the proposal request may have differed in some ways from the way it was ultimately presented. The first email, dated Dec. 1, 2016, contains a proposal from Zipko to the city for the use of Zipko’s services.

“The City of Forest Lake is planning to contract for law enforcement services from the Washington County Sheriff’s department,” the first paragraph reads. “This is a way for the city to continue to make sure people in Forest Lake are safe and well served yet the decision to make this change required a lot of research and time.”

The second email, dated Dec. 15, 2016, and sent to Zipko from the city, includes a file with “key messaging” points on the contract law enforcement issue. Under the header of “Why is the City interested in pursuing a change in the way it provides law enforcement services?” there are a few different talking points, including discord related to labor negotiations as well as topics brought up after the proposal request process went public in January, like the good law enforcement service sheriff’s offices have provided to neighboring and nearby communities. However, there is also a paragraph that has been struck through, appearing as if it is slated to be removed, that includes a reason for a change that some of the council’s critics have accused members of harboring privately.

“The City Council has lost confidence in the leadership of the Department because it does not respect the Council’s role in setting and establishing policy,” the paragraph reads. “They have lost the trust of the Council and by extension the community. The City Council is not confident that all members of the community will be treated equally.”

Parrish said the language in the Dec. 1 proposal from Zipko regarding the city “planning” to contract for services was an issue of inaccurate wording and added that city staff had never presented the issue to Zipko as one of the city favoring picking one service or the other.

“I think that that’s probably something of a mischaracterization,” he said of the language.

As for the messaging regarding the council losing confidence in Police Department leadership, Parrish said the language was ultimately not used because the opinion did not appear to be held by the majority of council members after he discussed the issue with them.

“Certainly that (language) might have been an individual perspective that was there, but I guess I didn’t feel that that was a talking point that I would work off of. … I thought that that might not have been a consensus among the group,” he said.

Winnick said he didn’t recall that position being brought up in discussions prior to the Jan.18 vote, adding that he and other council members didn’t want to make the proposal request an “us vs. them” issue.

“We’re trying to keep everything on a positive point,” he said.

Transparency

In a statement given to The Times by Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, which represents Forest Lake police officers and Washington County deputies, Gormley highlighted the language of the Zipko proposal and said it was at odds with previous council claims that no decision had been made about whether or not the city should stay with the Police Department.

“That’s not transparency. That’s deception,” the statement reads in part. “It also makes the evaluation process, and the opportunity for stakeholder feedback and public comment(,) a sham.”

After the Jan. 18 Personnel Committee vote, Bain and Councilman Sam Husnik said they were never informed of any discussion by the council of an imminent request for a contract law enforcement proposal. Husnik said he was out of the loop on Zipko as well until Gort brought it up at the meeting, and he joined Bain in saying that the request should have been discussed in a full council meeting with all of the current members before the Personnel Committee took action.

“There’s been a lot of stuff as far as I’m concerned that’s been hush-hush about this whole thing, and the fact that some of us haven’t been included on this unbelievable,” he said, adding that he found the way the request was handled by the other council members “unethical.” “We’d have lost the debate, but we still should have had some input into that.”

Bain said her open letter to the Washington County Board of Commissioners on the contract law enforcement issue (also published in The Forest Lake Times) was completed on her own, without Zipko assistance. She felt that Zipko providing feedback on Winnick’s piece, which she viewed as a rebuttal to her own, was a questionable use of taxpayer money.

“This is more than just handling workload in a response to media request; this is crafting a response,” she said.

Bain also remarked that though she didn’t have a problem with using a PR firm to help manage workloads, she felt that Zipko’s maintenance of city responses has left residents feeling like they’ve been given a tight-lipped, inauthentic response to their concerns. She said she plans to address the scope of Zipko’s work at an upcoming council meeting if it is not more strictly defined before then (the March 13 meeting was canceled due to a lack of quorum).

“I don’t understand why we need to pay a PR firm to essentially say, ‘We’re not going to talk until we have a proposal back from the sheriff,’” she said, adding that issues surrounding the firm add to her feeling that the contract law enforcement issue has not been handled transparently by the council majority.

“The citizens of Forest Lake were listening very carefully during the budget work,” she said. “There was no discussion around cuts around the police budget.”

Winnick said he believes the complaints about the process have been overblown by a minority of residents.

“There’s been the vocal few that are one side of it,” he said. “People know who to reach out to, obviously, but (I hear) just as many on the other side of the fence, and I’d say 90 percent of the people are in the middle with, ‘Just wait and see.’”

Winnick added that he felt Zipko’s work was useful in countering what he called “fear-mongering” by some who are spreading falsehoods about what could happen if the city decides to contract with the county.

“There are a lot of distortions of the truth out there,” he said. “There are some flat-out lies.”

Among said lies, Winnick said, are the ideas that deputies would be dispatched from Stillwater to handle Forest Lake calls or that response times or staffing levels would drop under a county-run system. He said the maintenance of current staffing standards is a prerequisite of the proposal request and added that deputies assigned to Forest Lake would be stationed in town during their shifts.

“Response times and staffing levels have to be equal to what they are now, and those are factors that are being forgotten by some vocal people who are trying to tell their story,” he said.

As to Bain and Husnik’s questions about the timing of and forewarning about the request, Winnick pointed out that the duo weren’t on the council when the discussion about Zipko began and said the issue of what level of service the city is getting from the Police Department “has been brought up time and time again.”

“What do we pay for police protection in this community? What do we get compared to other communities?” he said. “These are the questions that have been asked.”

Zipko, he said, is simply being utilized so that those issues and others surrounding the proposal request can be portrayed fairly.

“I think that’s what they’re doing,” he said.

Mike Zipko and Council Member Ed Eigner did not return a phone message from The Forest Lake Times seeking comment. Freer responded to a request for comment from The Times, but due to scheduling issues he was unavailable for comment before press time.