County intervenes, council reverses police decision

Forest Lake Police Captain Greg Weiss hugs Police Chief Rick Peterson as Councilwoman Mara Bain and others cheer during a May 10 gathering at Vanelli’s celebrating the tentative labor agreement between the city of Forest Lake and the Forest Lake Police Department labor unions. The agreements were made official May 15, keeping the FLPD from being disbanded and replaced by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Applause abounded as the Forest Lake City Council made two votes May 15 to accept labor agreements for Forest Lake Police Department staff and to rescind its acceptance of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office proposal for contract law enforcement in the city. The new labor agreements last through 2019, effectively ending the months-long discussion on whether or not the city would disband the FLPD in favor of contracting for services through the county.

Lead-up

The votes at the special May 15 meeting came after a dramatic series of events in the prior week, kicked off by 3-2 council decision on May 8 to accept the WCSO proposal and disband the FLPD by this fall. Leading up to the vote, many Forest Lake residents had mounted an organized public movement to keep the department in place, and the backlash to the May 8 decision was immediate and vociferous: As the meeting adjourned, a packed house at the council chambers erupted, with some weeping, others chanting and still others hurling threats of harm at the “yes” voters Mayor Ben Winnick and Councilmen Ed Eigner and Michael Freer (read more about that meeting in the May 11 story “Council accepts sheriff’s proposal”).

Following up on the cries of “Not over yet” at the May 8 meeting, many local protesters organized to stop the council action at the next level: Washington County. Several residents attended a May 9 Washington County Board of Commissioners meeting to speak against the contract, while many more blanketed commissioners with phone calls and emails – more than 900 to Fran Miron alone, according to the District 1 commissioner.

“I’m trying to listen and absorb the attitude of the community toward this issue,” Miron told The Times, adding that he hoped his constituents would understand him not having the time to respond to each piece of correspondence individually.

Also on May 9, hundreds of local junior high and high school students from multiple local schools participated in an afternoon walk-out, converging on the grounds of the Forest Lake City Center to protest the council’s decision. The quickly-organized event gained statewide and ultimately national attention, and the morning of May 10, Councilwoman Mara Bain and one of the walk-out’s organizers, Clara Olson (who earned local accolades in anti-proposal circles in a May 1 open forum speech to the council), appeared on the Fox and Friends national morning show to speak against the recent vote.

Contract

By that afternoon, unconfirmed reports were circulating that WCSO, led by new sheriff Dan Starry, had withdrawn the office’s proposal from services. By that evening, those rumors were confirmed: the proposal had been pulled, and Starry, Miron, City Administrator Aaron Parrish, Police Chief Rick Peterson and representatives of the police unions had worked together to find a mutually agreeable labor contract to present to the council May 15. The police unions, both represented by Law Enforcement Labor Services, unanimously ratified the contracts May 11. A previous negotiation attempt had been made the weekend prior to the council’s May 8 meeting, and Starry told The Times he spoke to both Parrish and LELS and thought that the two sides could still find resolution.

“From my point of view, there was still a chance,” he said, adding that he pulled the contract because he thought it would better incentivize a deal being struck.

Starry became the acting sheriff on May 1 and was sworn in on May 2, replacing the outgoing Sheriff Bill Hutton. Though he said the first week on the job was “interesting,” given the attention paid to the contract, he said his primary communication with the public came May 11, when residents showered him with notes of gratitude. Though his participation has been behind the scenes, Starry said, he’d been paying close attention to the process unfolding in the city.

“I make sure I watch and I listen and I learn (from) down here and see how things are going,” he said.

The three-year contract for 2017 through 2019 includes a 2 percent salary increase starting this July, a 2 percent increase in 2018 and a 3 percent increase in 2019. The contract also keeps the retiree health benefits, a key point of contention in the city’s previous offer to the unions, and it provides for a development consultant to provide feedback on the operations and sustainability of the department, as well as establishing a stakeholder group that will bring two council members, the police chief, the city administrator and two police officers together to discuss conflict resolution and mediation.

The contract also includes changes in the arbitration process between the unions and the city, which was another sticking point with last weekend’s offer. Under the new contract, if either the unions or the city chooses to go to arbitration, the party that didn’t request arbitration can select whether it wishes to use the more conventional form of arbitration or “final offer issue by issue” arbitration, in which an arbitrator would select one of the parties’ offers on each issue under dispute – a process that often encourages parties to come to agreement before arbitration begins (both parties could also mutually agree to a final offer total package arbitration). LELS Executive Director Sean Gormley told The Times the changes in arbitration between the last offer and the current one were mutually beneficial.

“They are a little different, but all I can say to that is both sides are agreeable to the language change,” he said.

Reaction

The evening of May 10, the city of Forest Lake, WCSO and LELS issued a joint press release announcing the tentative contract agreement and expressing hope that relationships within the city would improve following a trying time for the community.

“I think we can build on the productive discussions we had this week and translate that effort into improving working relationships with city staff, City Council, and the community moving forward,” Parrish said in the release.

Winnick also released a statement, writing that he hoped the council-police relationship would improve and crediting the Forest Lake community with a remarkable organizational effort.

“I’ve lived in this city my entire life and have never seen the community come together like this before,” he said.

In an interview with The Times, Winnick maintained his belief that the city would have been well served by the WCSO proposal, adding that he was often discouraged during the process by what he saw as too much misinformation on the topic. As an example, he said, he still was getting regular correspondence from people who didn’t seem to realize that the sheriff’s office would be taking over police services under the proposal; those letters, he said, accused the council of voting to cut the FLPD with no replacement.

He added that though there couldn’t have been a legal guarantee that FLPD officers would have been hired by the county to work in Forest Lake, talks with WCSO left him very confident in that prospect – and in the prospect that the officers wouldn’t have been busted down in rank or pay.

“Our officers would have been taken care of,” he said. “We aren’t just firing these people. … We couldn’t have guaranteed all of them going over, but most of them would.”

Winnick said if there was one thing he would have changed about the process, it would have been to get rid of the fallow period in between the proposal request in late January and the city receiving the proposal in early April.

“That two months without information were tough because everybody only heard one side of the story,” he said. “I think we tried to stay positive. We weren’t trying to bash one side or not. I thought the department and the council were respectful through the process, and I hope we can build on that relationship.”

Bain and Councilman Sam Husnik were both excited after the labor agreement was reached, with Husnik saying that he hoped the city could soon heal and turn its attention to other issues.

“I think it’s a win for the city of Forest Lake and I certainly think it’s a win for the cops, and I hope that we can get back to the business of the city,” he said.

Both he and Bain, who was the first public official to break the news of the contract, praised the dedication of residents against the department disband.

This has been only the result of this community banding together and showing its … undying support for the Police Department,” she said.

The evening of May 10, several community members and some off-duty officers gathered at Vanelli’s to celebrate the reaching of a contract agreement. Peterson stopped by later on in the evening, and – after being greeted by whoops and cheers from the assembled crowd – he told The Times that he was proud of the professionalism Forest Lake officers exhibited in a difficult time.

They never gave up on their community,” he said. “They continued to do their jobs.”

He also thanked local residents for their outpouring of support over the last few months.

Meeting

The portion of the May 15 meeting dealing with the police issue was short, with discussion on the topic ending fewer than 20 minutes after it began. Freer moved to bring the council to a closed session to discuss in more detail the terms of the labor agreements, but his motion died after no council member seconded it. Winnick asked Parrish if the county gave any specific reason for pulling the proposal. Parrish said the WCSO indicated that it was responding to immense public feedback on the topic.

I think the ones that were compelling and that stood out to me were that they wanted to encourage the community to work through this issue,” Parrish said. “They were appreciative and understanding of the support that’s been demonstrated in the community for the Forest Lake Police Department, and I think that’s probably the core issue there.”

The council then voted to reconsider the motion to accept the sheriff’s office proposal, followed by a unanimous vote against accepting the proposal. Shortly thereafter, the council voted 4-1 to accept the new labor agreements, with Freer voting against because he felt there were still problems with the contracts.

“It does not establish local control,” he said of the agreement. “There are still serious issues I have with the agreement, and unfortunately, we were not able to discuss it (in a closed session) at this point. Just know that I am voting against it because it does not give the chief the local control he needs to run the position.”

After the meeting, Freer told The Times that a big issue he had with the contract is that there isn’t a mechanism allowing the police chief to change officers’ shifts or to exercise more control over when officers are on given shifts. Instead, senior employees are given preference as to their shift assignments. In the contract proposed to the unions the weekend before the May 8 meeting, there is language that explicitly grants the chief the ability to assign officers to any shift, taking preferences from senior employees into account. That contract was rejected by both unions.

Freer, a human resources officer by trade, said that he has dealt with several comparable contracts for public employees of the state of Minnesota.

Every single one of them gives you the authority to change people’s shifts,” he said, expressing dismay that the other council members did not address the issue.

During a meeting recess after the contracts were approved, Forest Lake Police Captain Greg Weiss gave a statement to the media in which he thanked the community for supporting the department.

We’ve had this support from our city and our community since I was a kid here,” he said. “Our officers work hard; they love the city they police, they love the badge they wear, they love the patch they wear, and I could not be more proud that we’re going to be continuing to wear that badge and serving the awesome citizens of Forest Lake.”

He added that the department is committed to not dwelling on past disagreements and conflicts and moving forward to foster cooperation within the city and city government.

It’s time to forge new relationships,” he said. “It’s time to move forward. It’s time to find a common ground of what the city leaders want and what we can provide and do it in a fiscally responsible manner to the best of our abilities, as we always have done.”

When the meeting reconvened, the council quietly got back to other business, including the approval of an approximately $50,000 project to install seven pickleball courts at Fenway Fields and a $3.43 million project (a savings of more than half a million dollars from the project estimate) to start repair and reconstruction work on phase one of the city’s long-brewing lift station rehabilitation initiative. Those stories will be covered in future issues of The Times.

Reflection

As the police issue appeared to be heading toward a close before the May 15 meeting, a few of the involved parties offered perspective on the process. Bain held a Facebook live event in which she answered some of the most frequent questions she’s received regarding police issues, including how to further support the department financially and how to respond to city officials (under state law, most city officials can only be recalled if they break the law or do not perform their official duties). Winnick expressed frustration at what he called the “disgusting” threats and hate mail he and his family had received, adding that he wished the level of discourse on controversial topics could improve.

“You get extremes from both sides where nobody’s willing to compromise. …We should be able to discuss things and work out a solution to whatever (the issue) is and not just get shouted down,” he told The Times.

Miron said he was proud of the leadership Starry had exhibited so early in his tenure as sheriff, adding his thanks to the Forest Lake residents who spiritually supported city and county leadership throughout the process.

I believe strongly in the power of prayer, and I know there were prayers for all of us in leadership this whole time and I want to thank people for that,” he said. “I believe that helped. My prayer now would be for some compassion and healing to go on in the Forest Lake community.”