May 1 could be police contract decision day

Six days after a well-attended open house on the Washington County Sheriff’s Office proposal for contract law enforcement in Forest Lake, the City Council voted April 24 to hold a work session and special meeting May 1 to further explore the topic with the hope of making a final decision on the issue. The vote was 3-2 in favor of the setting the meeting, with Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilman Husnik voting against out of concern that not enough questions about the proposal and contract would be able to be answered before that date.

The Forest Lake City Center was packed during the April 18 open house as community members read information about the proposal and shared their thoughts with council members (read more about the details presented during the open house in the April 20 story “Open house digs into police proposal details” or online at tinyurl.com/krhr5n8). Though residents who were open to the proposal process attended the open house, the anti-proposal contingent made itself known; many wore blue armbands in support of keeping the Forest Lake Police Department intact, while others brought signs asking why Sheriff Bill Hutton did not come to the meeting to answer questions.

On April 24, Mayor Ben Winnick said that some people had threatened his family and that while those people were not representative of the anti-proposal resident group as a whole, such actions were unacceptable and ineffective.

“Threats against myself and my family will not be tolerated,” he said.

Councilman Michael Freer added that he and his family had been threatened as well, before praising the open house as a good communication forum.

“There was a lot of really good conversation with people,” he said.

Expressing a desire to discuss the details of the proposal and then take the next step, whether that would be to accept or reject what the county is offering, Freer moved to hold a work session and a special section to follow on May 1, at the latter of which the council could decide whether to move forward with the WCSO contract. He was questioned by Bain, who thought that the contract and proposal were still in an early enough stage that it would be likely for the council or the public to still have questions in a week’s time. Freer responded that answering those questions was the goal of the work session. He also noted later in the meeting that the contract could be tabled if need be.

“We have workshop items all the time that we go through in detail,” he said.

He added that the council could spend four hours or more on the topic before making a decision at a special meeting.

“I do feel that we can get through it in that period of time,” he said.

Bain was still doubtful, pointing out that the council does not have a final draft of a sheriff’s office contract, adding that on the draft contract she has seen, estimates for the fourth and fifth year’s costs for the five-year contract were not available (the draft was not made available to the public before press time).

“We’re going to sign a contract where we haven’t even looked at those numbers one week in advance?” she asked. “Do we hate ourselves?”

Following this remark, Winnick joined the conversation between Freer and Bain.

“I’m going to try to hold my tongue, Mara, but, you know, you’ve done nothing but try and stir the pot on this,” he said, before being interrupted by a brief outburst of consternation from the audience of more than 100 people.

“I have (upheld) the campaign promises that I made and I have been consistent (on) everything I have said publicly since I filed for office in early August. Call that stirring the pot; I call it representing the people who elected me,” Bain responded, receiving applause from the crowd.

Shortly after this exchange, the council voted to set the meeting for May 1, which was met with a chorus of boos from many in the audience. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. City staff expect a final contract from the sheriff’s office later this week.