The tears flowed as freely as the cries of rage the evening of May 8 at the Forest Lake City Center. The City Council had just voted, 3-2, to contract with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services starting in September, effectively beginning a process that, unless stopped, will result in the disbanding of the Forest Lake Police Department.
Unlike the council’s May 1 work session and special meeting on the subject, the proceedings did not occupy an entire evening, lasting less than an hour instead of more than five. Like May 1, however, the community showed up in droves for the event, with the vast majority vocalizing support for keeping the FLPD intact. The council chamber was packed to overflowing, with many more residents crowding the hall outside the chamber or watching a live feed of the meeting in the city’s fire hall, which is attached to the city center. Council comments were frequently interrupted with applause for points made by Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilman Sam Husnik, who voted against accepting the proposal, or with boos or shouted remarks for Mayor Ben Winnick and Councilmen Michael Freer and Ed Eigner, who voted for the proposal.
The council’s final vote was moved by Winnick with the addendum that the city should encourage the sheriff’s office to hire current Forest Lake officers and focus on community engagement and service. It also authorized City Administrator Aaron Parrish to negotiate with the police officers’ union leadership over terms of officers’ layoffs. The sheriff’s office proposal does not guarantee that current officers will be hired or, if they are hired, that they will be assigned to work in the city, though former Sheriff Bill Hutton, who led the crafting of the proposal, told The Times that the WCSO hiring and utilizing police officers already well-versed with Forest Lake seemed to be the logical choice.
More information on the proposal and potential alternatives to it can be found in the Times’ April 20 story “Open house digs into police proposal details” and the May 4 story “Hundreds attend, but no decision yet on FLPD.”
Since the May 8 meeting was a continuation of the May 1 special meeting, there was no open forum, and the council and city staff got right into discussion.
The meeting opened with the city’s labor attorney, Marylee Abrams, telling the council about an emergency meeting between city negotiators and the FLPD’s two labor unions (represented by the larger group Law Enforcement Labor Services) that took place on May 6. During the meeting, she said, the groups discussed various terms that, if agreed upon by all parties, could have resulted in a joint union and negotiator recommendation to the City Council. Ultimately, she said, city negotiators offered a three-year deal that included, among other items, 2 percent raise increases each year, the establishment of procedures with the goal of improving council-police relations and examining police operations for efficiencies, the elimination of health benefits for retirees, and changes to the contract arbitration process. Abrams did not delve deeply into what the changes were but said that they would help “streamline” the arbitration process and reduce conflict; in a press release sent to the media the evening of the meeting, LELS claimed that the city’s offer “tilts arbitration in the city’s favor.”
“The (contract) changes would not impact officers economically,” Abrams noted.
The police supervisors and patrol officers represented by LELS met May 7 to vote on the city’s offer, ultimately deciding to reject it. Earlier in the day on May 8, Abrams said, LELS proposed once again that both unions accept a zero percent increase for 2017 and 2018 and requested that the city and LELS file joint mediation through the Bureau of Mediation Services. Abrams said that the zero percent increase is not desirable from the city’s standpoint because after the two years are up, negotiation with the unions would probably result in a steeper percentage increase in salary to keep up with current market demands.
“We’d probably be playing catch-up, and that could be damaging to your budget,” she told the council.
LELS Executive Director Sean Gormley spoke after Abrams and said that he believed healthy conversation came from the meeting, though he said LELS was confused at times about where the process was leading. He added that police union members were concerned that aspects of the deal hurt seniority and noted that the arbitration and health benefit provisions were important to the officers (retiree health benefits are currently available to officers hired before 2010 who work with the city for 30 years).
“I think that given the opportunity, we can find common ground on a lot of these things,” he said.
LELS’ press release was more forceful, stating that the city’s offer “guts key benefits for cops” and accusing the city of blackmail by holding the threat of a disbanded police department over officers’ heads in exchange for a bad labor deal. After the meeting, Gormley said the officers were unhappy with the arbitration, retirement and shift scheduling changes in the contract and were worried that the proposal would damage seniority. He accused the council majority of scripting its decision as using a purposely bad contract to scapegoat officers for the decision.
“Quite frankly, everything that was contained in here was a big issue,” he said of the contract. “For them to say that this was a fair contract with ample time to discuss it is a blatant, out-and-out lie.”
Following Gormley and Abrams, each council member spoke briefly on the labor negotiations and the situation as a whole, followed by a brief discussion among members interspersed with questions for Abrams and Parrish. Husnik went first, remarking that the council should let the city heal by rejecting the proposal and arguing that it would be foolish of the council to make a snap judgment on the rejection of the offer due to the short time frame in which LELS and the city had to negotiate. Prior to the emergency meeting, LELS had attempted to negotiate for a 2017 contract for its officers but were told by Parrish and Abrams that the city could only discuss terms related to a potential layoff.
“As far as I’m concerned, that (contract negotiation) process should have been going on for the last couple months,” Husnik said.
Eigner, Freer and Winnick each expressed disappointment in the officers’ rejection of the labor proposal. Eigner said he didn’t feel there was motivation by the police to work with the city on an agreeable outcome.
“We’re … definitely (at an) impasse here,” he said.
Freer said he’d been very hopeful over the weekend that the situation would be worked out, thanking LELS, Parrish and Abrams for coming to the table.
“Maybe this could have started sooner, but it takes both sides to want to do that, and unfortunately at this point in time it doesn’t seem like we were able to work this out at this point,” he said.
Bain said that the officers seemed amenable to some of the key parts of the contract, including language that would establish a stakeholder group to allow the police and city government to overcome differences. She said there was no reason to set the May 8 meeting as any kind of deadline for a decision, expressing hope that staff could continue to negotiate and find a mutually beneficial outcome for the department membership and the city.
“These folks got together on Sunday morning to vote on a contract,” she said. “You don’t call that done, and if that’s the end of our appetite to start this process, we’ve got the wrong people sitting at the table. This is not done.”
She added her feeling that circumstances of low trust and a condensed timeline made for a suboptimal negotiation environment.
“How dare us say in one week, ‘We’re at an impasse, we don’t have any options’?” she asked. “That’s embarrassing!”
Winnick spoke last during the initial council comments, remarking that the city wanted to find a compromise with the department that would allow the city more local control and input on the department.
“Personally, I was extremely disappointed (in the unions’ rejection),” he said. “This is a great offer, a great offer to the Police Department. … It was a good proposal. I don’t think there’s any more we can offer them.”
The focus on reaching a labor agreement with department members was a new wrinkle in the contract law enforcement discussion. Prior to the May 8 meeting, though some council members had broached topics like saving labor negotiation costs or offering more comprehensive services as possible factors in a decision to contract with Washington County, the body had not discussed during its meetings the possibility of reaching a favorable labor agreement as being a necessary step in retaining the department.
Before the vote, council members discussed a few more topics that they viewed as pros or cons in the WCSO proposal. Bain slammed the requirement that the city pay out the balance of its contract cost (which is currently unknown, as cost estimates for the final two years of the five-year contract are not available) if it cancels the sheriff’s contract early, while Winnick said a partnership with the county would allow the city access to services it currently cannot afford. He urged residents to read the proposal for a comprehensive list of WCSO services.
Amid boos and screams, the council immediately adjourned following the vote to approve the contract. Police Chief Rick Peterson stood between Winnick and some residents who had pressed close to ask the mayor questions or express their frustration, allowing Winnick to leave the council chamber unimpeded. In the chamber and the city center halls, attendee reactions ranged from disgust to sadness to resolve. Some residents yelled thinly veiled threats toward council members as they left the building or speculated that the three in favor of the contract had made up their minds ahead of time, while many police officers exchanged tearful hugs with their supporters, including several students. Sometimes, the officer was doing the comforting; at others, he or she was being comforted. Still other residents took up a chant of “Not over yet,” vowing that they will continue to fight the sheriff’s office proposal until they have exhausted their options.
“Leadership failed, and it did not represent the community,” said local businessman and former mayoral candidate Mark Finnemann, one of the leaders of the anti-proposal movement in the city. He said that though his conversations with those well-versed in the law indicate that there wouldn’t be much chance of a successful lawsuit against the city in this matter, he and many other community members have plans to continue their efforts in other ways. LELS is still discussing its options; right now, it is not known if the group will pursue legal action against the city or attempt to make the city enter a contract for 2017 with FLPD officers, who are currently serving under the terms of their 2016 contract.
For now, the process has shifted to the Washington County Board of Commissioners, which will have to approve the contract with the city before it takes effect. The board did not have the topic on its May 9 meeting agenda, but several residents spoke on the topic at the meeting in Stillwater all the same. District 1 Commissioner Fran Miron, who represents Forest Lake and the surrounding area on the board, did not return a call seeking comment before press time. Finnemann acknowledged that the probability of convincing the County Board was not high but said he and others remained committed to the cause.
“Three people do not represent the majority,” he said.
Forest Lake Area High School students also got involved, staging a walk-out on May 9 to protest the council vote. They were joined by junior high students and students from Lakes International Language Academy, creating a gaggle of hundreds of young protestors who trekked to the city center.
About half an hour after the meeting ended, the city issued a press release announcing the council vote. The release included a quote from Winnick.
“This was an extremely difficult decision to make, but ultimately it is the right move for the city of Forest Lake,” the release quoted Winnick as saying. “This contract will position the city for long-term sustainability and will increase the numbers of patrols in the city. I’d like to personally thank the officers of the Forest Lake Police Department for their years of dedicated service and I strongly encourage the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to give preferential hiring to these fine men and women as they look to hire additional deputies to patrol the city of Forest Lake.”
Later in the evening, Peterson issued a brief statement on the situation.
“(I) just want to thank all the community for all of their support; the community has been fantastic,” he said. “And we’ll continue to provide services, exceptional services to the city of Forest Lake as long as we’re employed here.”