How did we communicate?

The contract law enforcement discussion and process in Forest Lake over these last few months is unlike any I’ve covered anywhere I’ve worked. The passion to which people have responded to the possibility of Washington County taking over law enforcement services – and the number of people who have mobilized – is truly remarkable.

While there are many aspects of this conversation that are cause for celebration, I’ve also unfortunately observed dialogue on both sides of this issue at times become ugly and counterproductive. This process has put our community under the microscope for better and for worse. Here are two lessons I’ve gleaned from watching and reporting on the process as it’s unfolded.

Transparency matters

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a column about a different hot topic in the Forest Lake area.

“(M)uch of the reaction The Times has observed from residents is tinged with mistrust, confusion and the feeling that this decision was reached without community input,” I wrote. “I don’t believe the district or the school board intended to create this reaction, but in hindsight, it’s easy to see where those emotions came from.”

I was writing about the Forest Lake Area Schools’ decision to cut or transition much of its funding for junior high sports teams, a vote that caught area residents unaware after coming with little to no public discussion beforehand. That column didn’t question the School Board’s motives, and I’m not going to weigh in on those motives for the council, either. There’s certainly enough conversation around that topic without me adding to it.

What that column focused on instead was how that decision looked – how it felt – to the community, and on that score, I think the issue of the sports decision and the contract policing discussion are very similar. I don’t think the council or city staff intended to give the request for a contract law enforcement proposal the appearance of a fly-by-night operation, conducted out of sight and without input from the community at large. I work with the council members and many members of city staff on a pretty regular basis, and I almost always find them to be forthright and informative, with council members not afraid to express their views and city staff members ready and able to provide comprehensive information.

With the police issue, however, it’s hard not to think that it could have been handled better. While I have no doubt as to the law enforcement abilities of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, an issue as financially significant and emotionally charged as whether or not to change a law enforcement provider – especially in the current Forest Lake environment, where the issue has become so politically significant – should have been discussed in-depth in full council meetings well before a committee voted to make a request. That the request was made without the public, the media or even two of the council members knowing about it until after it was done caught the community off guard, allowing misunderstandings and confusion to spread faster than the city could correct them. It also helped create the impression among many that city government was trying to pull a fast one on residents – an impression that was only exacerbated by the revelation that a few people in city government knew about the impending request for a couple of months before it was made.

Were those impressions correct? Would this topic have retained its explosiveness if it had been discussed more openly from the beginning? Ultimately, it’s not for me to say what might have been, but I’ve heard from so many in the community who were dissatisfied with the way this discussion was broached just as much, if not more, than they were with the discussion itself. It’s sad to see a citizenry so dramatically lose trust in its government; I hope steps to regain that trust can be made soon.

The dialogue matters

Throughout this process, some voices have impressed me with their voices of reason, command of the facts and a desire to stay on top of the changing status quo of the proposal. The presence of those elected city officials, city staff members and residents in this debate has been valuable to me and, I think, to the public at large.

However, too many people who got involved in this discussion have done so without bothering to fact-check their claims before speaking up. While the fullest presentation of what was in the sheriff’s proposal seemed like a long time coming, I thought it was a comprehensive portrait of both what we have now and what we could have expected to have under Washington County coverage, and the city and county officials who put that information together deserve credit for their hard work.

Despite that information being available both from local government and media outlets, however, I still often saw and heard claims that just weren’t true, like the idea that sheriff’s deputies would be responding from Stillwater, not Forest Lake. I also observed folks on both sides of the debate favoring information in the presentation that supported their arguments, seemingly ignoring the existence of the other side’s perspective. No one’s side is served by twisting the truth.

Beyond even the issues of truth is the uncomfortable fact that at times in this process, aspects of the public conversation became toxic and nasty. As the three council members who voted for the proposal on May 8 left the council chamber, I heard insults and mockery that should make any mature adult – heck, any self-respecting child – blush in embarrassment. Worse still, I heard several shouts that are hard to interpret as anything other than threats of violence. After Councilman Freer and Mayor Winnick said earlier this month that they and their families had been targeted, I saw some online who scoffed at the notion, claiming that the duo had made up tales to garner sympathy. After May 8, I don’t see how anyone could deny those threats were real; that night, they were on display for all to hear – and for cameras to capture and broadcast around the state.

That’s shameful.

The side of the debate that was open to the proposal also had dialogue problems. Too often, I heard allegations that the anti-proposal leadership was engaging in a campaign of lies, and I saw instances of some local residents who tried to smear FLPD officers, hoping that long-ago infractions could serve as additional justification for getting rid of the Police Department.

On the other hand, the good communication that many members of the public promoted during this process was perhaps its greatest highlight. Agree with them or not, Councilwoman Bain and Mayor Winnick were in the media constantly, giving interviews and providing their perspective via columns in the local press. It was also good to hear stories of Councilman Freer speaking to concerned residents on Easter Sunday and to see the commitment to professionalism by Police Chief Rick Peterson and other officers during a trying time for the department.

But, of course, the most remarkable communication of all was the mobilization of so many community members, both students and adults, to save a Forest Lake institution they cared so much about. The efforts of community members to oppose the proposal process required an incredible amount of organization and determination, and the results were council meetings stuffed to the gills with residents, some of whom had never before darkened the door of City Hall. Regardless of which side of this debate you fall, the work and passion of the community is impressive, and getting that many people engaged in a civic discussion is a wonderful thing.

Ryan Howard is the news editor of The Forest Lake Times.