Forest Lake will have to wait at least one more week – but likely not longer – before the City Council decides whether or not to accept a contract law enforcement proposal from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
Anticipating a decision at the council’s May 1 special meeting, interested Forest Lake residents crammed into the Forest Lake City Center, with most attendees expressing support for a rejection of the proposal and the retention of the Forest Lake Police Department. Well over 100 people wedged into the council chambers, while a crush of people watched the meeting in the hallway outside and another large group watched the proceedings in a community room upstairs in the center. With Lakes Area Television’s web broadcast of the event undergoing technical difficulties, observers of social media during the meeting reported that more than 3,000 people had watched a live stream of the event filmed on an attendee’s phone.
Having already extended the council meeting curfew on the topic, the council voted 3-2 to continue the meeting (thus allowing members to continue discussion without another open forum) on May 8. Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilman Sam Husnik voted against the measure, preferring to talk more about the topic and possibly make a decision that night. Bain had previously voiced opposition to May 1 as a decision-making meeting, stating that she thought it didn’t give the council enough time to consider the details of the contract.
How the council would ultimately vote on the topic remained unclear. Though Bain and Husnik have stated their opposition to the proposal both during and outside of meetings, Councilmen Michael Freer and Ed Eigner said toward the end of the May 1 meeting that they were not yet sure how they would vote. Mayor Ben Winnick did not explicitly state if he’d decided how he would vote but told the crowd that he was thoughtfully considering residents’ concerns and the impact a dissolution of the FLPD would have on local officers.
“Wherever this decision takes us, I can guarantee you that the five people up here are going to struggle with that decision,” Winnick said.
The meeting came on the heels of the April 28 release of the details of Washington County’s finalized proposal contract for the contract law enforcement proposal. The city also released a new 2018 budget proposal from Forest Lake Police Chief Rick Peterson which proposes cost savings by not replacing two officer positions that are currently vacant and by incorporating a 0 percent wage increase for supervisors and patrol officers, as proposed by the Law Enforcement Labor Services union at the Forest Lake City Council’s April 24 meeting (as of May 1, city staff reported that Forest Lake had received an official proposal for a zero percent increase from the patrol officers union group but not the supervisors).
The proposal from the county estimates that its services (which would begin on Sept. 1 if approved) would cost the city approximately $2.9 million during the first year, $2.97 million the second year and $3.05 million the third year, though the city would pay the county the amount the police service is actually calculated to cost, not the estimated amount. Estimates for the fourth and fifth years of the five-year contract are not available.
If the city approved the contract and then decided later to leave the agreement prior to the five years being up, they would owe the contract costs to the county for the remaining years. How exactly this would be determined, given the fact that the county will be charging the city actual costs, not cost estimates, is currently uncertain. City staff said the city would need to seek clarity from the sheriff’s office regarding this issue.
In a memo prepared by City Administrator Aaron Parrish, he estimated that switching to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for services will likely cost the city about $125,000 extra in the 2018 police budget (with the savings from the police department costs being offset by layoff and other transition costs) and then save the city about $387,000 in 2019. The memo projects similar savings over the next three years of the contract, assuming that the FLPD’s budget would grow at a similar rate, resulting in a projected savings of about $1.42 million – or $1.78 million if potential savings in the city’s capital improvement plan are included (the projects in the capital improvement plan have not yet been authorized by the council, however).
Parrish’s memo did not give the council a recommendation as to what decision it should make. However, another memo, which along with Parrish’s was released in the packets of the May 1 meetings, was written by Peterson, who recommended that the city retain the FLPD. Peterson’s memo proposes that, in order to find greater cost savings, the city does not replace the two police officer positions that were vacated by resignations earlier this year. To not reduce patrol coverage, the FLPD detective assigned to the Washington County Drug Task Force and the detective assigned to the Crime Prevention and Community Policing Unit would be reassigned to patrol positions. The memo also accounts for a 0 percent wage and benefit increase to officers in 2017 and 2018, as proposed by LELS, though Parrish noted that the union would likely try to negotiate in 2019 and beyond to make up for the stagnant wages.
Peterson’s memo projected an effective cost to taxpayers of about $3.13 million for his amended plan, down from the current estimated effective cost of $3.34 million. He estimated that, accounting for the layoff transition costs of moving to the county, his proposal would save the city about $367,000 over the county plan in 2018, though it would still be slightly higher than the 2019 and 2020 projected county costs. However, Peterson did state at the meeting that he would prefer the department’s budget to stay as is.
Though the vast majority of the work session and special meeting was made up of nearly four hours of public comment, toward the end of the proceedings, the community got to hear the most public explanation yet from Eigner, Freer and Winnick, the three council members who have been driving the proposal process forward, of why the proposal was requested. The three men offered differing explanations that hit on a variety of similar themes, among them finances, service and the feeling that the FLPD was becoming unduly involved with local politics.
Freer gave the most complete account of how his views on the issue evolved. Explaining that he had talked privately with members of FLPD leadership and was told multiple times the department was not experiencing a coverage shortage, Freer said he was disappointed that that same leadership did nothing to dispel assertions from some political factions during the 2016 campaign that the department’s coverage of the community was inadequate following the 2015 layoff of officer Max Boukal (a layoff that Freer was against). Freer said the conception that police coverage was inadequate led people to fear for their safety.
“When we have (police) leadership refusing to bring things forward or talk about it in public when the perception is out there – the perception is enough for the community not to feel safe,” he said. “When we have somebody out there refusing to bring it forward, that’s unacceptable.”
Freer also noted that he had tried to address this issue privately behind the scenes and had been reluctant to bring it up publicly.
Eigner said he believed that some police officers used their positions to exert influence on the election – “Anyone who didn’t see it in the last campaign has got their head in the sand,” he remarked – but he said his primary concern is providing cost-effective and exemplary service. Noting that the department currently makes up nearly half of the city’s budget, Eigner suggested that a smaller police budget could free up the council to focus funding on other areas of the city budget that are in need.
“It was said tonight, ‘Why don’t you spend your money on other things? Why don’t you spend you money on roads? Why don’t you spend your money on giving us water, streetlights?’ … Where does the money come from for these other things?” he asked.
Winnick said he was “still trying to look past” what he saw as actions of some police officers working against him during the 2016 campaign, but he added that he also wanted the focus of the discussion to be on the proposal, not the election.
“At the end of the day, we have to look at levels of service and what we’re going to get, what our expectations are going into the future,” he said.
Husnik and Bain offered comments on why they believe keeping the FLPD is the right choice, including residential satisfaction with the department’s work and the current officers’ intimate knowledge of and relationship with the community. They also remarked on the crowd that has consistently showed up at council meetings since the request for a proposal was sent to the sheriff’s office in January, noting their steadfast opposition to the proposal process.
“This has really galvanized this community, and this is the one thing that people on the left and the right have agreed on, and (everyone) in between,” Husnik said.
The council’s remarks were brief, however, compared to the outpouring of support for keeping the department expressed by residents, business owners and nearby community members during the meetings. Members of the Citizens Opposed to Police Shutdown group started filing into the city center before 5 p.m. (the meeting didn’t start until 6:30), and as the council chambers and then the surrounding hallway filled, the event began to resemble something more akin to a peaceful rally than a council meeting. Some of the anti-proposal movement’s leaders quietly discussed who should say what during the open forum, while several Catholics were given copies of an intercessory prayer to read during the meeting. Signs abounded, including a cluster of people whose signs expressed “Faith in Freer” that the councilman would make a good decision, and a few people here and there who made reference to Winnick’s April 24 assertion that Bain was trying to “stir the pot” on the proposal issue.
Also recognizing criticism that public comment at recent council meetings had at times taken on a hostile tone – along with Freer and Winnick’s announcement in April that their families had been threatened, a concern echoed by Eigner on May 1 – the anti-proposal leadership attempted to encourage a more respectful discourse during the meetings, an effort recognized and remarked positively on by council members toward the end of the night.
Speakers came up one by one for hours to weigh in, each one coming at the topic from a different approach. One referenced meeting God on Judgment Day, another made a “Jurassic Park” reference, and a few people made personal entreaties to individual council members. Matt Arntzen presented the council with a petition to keep the FLPD he said had racked up 6,000 signatures, and he and others urged Winnick to stick by comments he made at a candidate forum and online during the 2016 election in which he prioritized keeping the department viable for the future and said he wasn’t considering contracting for services.
“I really believe if you would have said out on the campaign trail that you were thinking about getting rid of the Forest Lake police or you were doing this, you would have never gotten anywhere near the votes you got,” Kris Martin told Winnick.
All but one of the open forum speakers was against the proposed contract, with those who spoke in favor of keeping the FLPD hitting on a variety of common themes in their arguments, including doubts about the plan’s cost effectiveness, the loss of local control, the current department’s wealth of knowledge about the area and the suspicion among some commenters that council members held some kind of vendetta against the officers. Perhaps the most common theme, however, was how much FLPD supporters value the relationships officers have with community members. A number of children and Forest Lake Area High School students spoke about the impact that school resource officers and other police have made on their lives; one, Mariah Carson, told the crowd that School Resource Officer Jon Glader had taught her how to park a truck, encouraged her to join the Army and comforted her after a friend’s suicide. Local resident Sarah Stark said her brother, once suicidal, had asked her to come to the meeting to talk about how he would have taken his own life if not for the patient, understanding efforts of the FLPD – efforts she said were forged from the relationships the department has invested in the community.
“You talked to him no matter what kind of state he was in,” she said, adding that the police were a comfort to the rest of her family as well. “You talked to him like he was there … and took such good care of him.”
“You are a blessing to us and we can never thank you guys enough,” she added, to applause from the crowd.
Though the council briefly began to discuss some of details of the contract, the majority decided that there wouldn’t be enough time to delve into an in-depth conversation. The meeting was continued to May 8.