Following the Washington County Sheriff's Office's decision to withdraw its contract law enforcement proposal for consideration and further labor agreement negotiations between the city of Forest Lake and the two unions representing the Forest Lake Police Department, the Forest Lake City Council is holding a special meeting May 15 to discuss and likely vote on a resolution to accept the labor agreement and rescind its acceptance of the WCSO proposal. This move would mean that the city will continue to utilize the Forest Lake Police Department as Forest Lake's primary law enforcement agency.
The council's special meeting will start at 6:30 p.m.
Forest Lake City Councilwoman Mara Bain first reported May 10 that the city had reached a tentative labor agreement with the unions representing Forest Lake police officers. The unions voted unanimously to approve the agreement the following day.
“The city is going to do an official statement, but I am going to confirm," she told The Times regarding the deal with the unions.
“This has been only the result of this community banding together and showing its ... undying support for the Police Department," she added. "This is a great day for the Forest Lake community.”
The Times had received multiple reports throughout the day May 10 regarding the status of the sheriff's proposal and the city potentially deciding to keep the department, but it had been unable to confirm any information with county or city officials until Wednesday evening, when Bain responded to a request for comment.
Shortly after 8:30 p.m. May 10, the city of Forest Lake, the Washington County Sheriff's Office and Law Enforcement Labor Services (which represents both the FLPD and WCSO) released a joint press release. The press release states that the unions and the city tentatively agreed to the three-year contract for 2017 through 2019 that 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 offer to the unions last weekend, 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. The press release states that the changes will encourage both parties to bring their best offers to the table during negotiation. 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.
The press release states that Gormley and City Administrator Aaron Parrish met for negotiations the morning of May 10 after strong encouragement by Washington County District 1 Commissioner Fran Miron and Sheriff Dan Starry to come to an agreement. Both men expressed happiness that an agreement to keep the FLPD in operation was reached.
Police Chief Rick Peterson was also quoted in the release, praising the professionalism of his officers during a trying time, and Parrish was quoted as expressing hope that this process would lead to improved relationships between the city, city staff and the public.
Gormley told The Times that he and Parrish returned to the table with the attitude that "we weren't miles apart” in the hopes that the conversations from last weekend could be continued with a more positive outcome. He praised Parrish's attitude and willingness to continue to try to come to an agreement.
The sheriff's office reported on social media that it had withdrawn the proposal from consideration by the county board. Miron said it wasn't for him to say what exactly prompted the withdrawal, noting that the withdrawal decision was Starry's alone to make. Starry was not the sheriff at the time the proposal was crafted for the city at the request of the Forest Lake Personnel Committee.
“It's interesting how this came about so early in (Starry's) tenure as sheriff here, and I think he has proven his leadership capabilities," Miron said.
Miron said he was very happy that it appeared the city and police officers were able to reach agreement, and he said the contract seemed to offer the officers good benefits while including accountability and relational components that are “critical to the healing that needs to go on in the Forest Lake community.”
He also apologized to the constituents who he was unable to respond to regarding this topic over the last few weeks, noting that he received hundreds of emails and phone calls. He said he read all of the correspondence that was sent to him but didn't have time to write back to everyone.
“I'm trying to listen and absorb the attitude of the community toward this issue," he said.
On May 11, Mayor Ben Winnick released a statement addressing the agreement and expressing hope that the relationship between the council and the police would be improved.
"I’ve reviewed the agreement between the City and the members of Law Enforcement Labor Services and realize that both sides made some tough concessions in order to come to this agreement," the statement read in part. "I look forward to the City Council discussion on this during Monday’s special meeting.
"This was an incredibly difficult process to go through for everyone involved, but it was an important conversation to have as a community."
Winnick also noted in his statement his continued belief that the WCSO contract would have offered more services at a lower cost, with deputies made up in large part by the current FLPD personnel. It also credited Forest Lake residents for their organized efforts regarding the issue.
"I’d like to commend the citizens Forest Lake for coming together like they did on this issue," Winnick's statement read. "I’ve lived in this city my entire life and have never seen the community come together like this before."
On that statement, Winnick was in agreement with Councilman Sam Husnik, who along with Bain was against the proposal throughout the entire process.
“It brought people together like I've never seen before in my life, and I've lived here since 1953,” Husnik remarked.
Husnik was happy with the agreement between the city and the police and said he hoped the community could heal from the process and move on to other topics.
“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 of Forest Lake,” he said.
Starry said he decided to pull the contract from consideration Wednesday morning, after speaking to union members and Parrish and finding that both sides still thought an agreement was within reach. He said he'd learned about the last-minute weekend negotiations between the two parties as he watched the May 8 meeting.
“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 given to the contract, he said his primary communication with the public came May 11, when resident 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.
Though he was proud of the WCSO's service, Starry said he understood why residents would be concerned about what they considered "unknowns" in the sheriff's proposal, stating that it was OK for residents to be concerned about a new process. Ultimately, he said, the deal the city and union reached seems like an amenable one to both sides and the public at large.
“I'm really pleased that the city and the police department were able to hammer things out,” he said.
Councilman Michael Freer declined to comment. The Times has placed calls to Parrish and Councilman Ed Eigner but had not heard back from them when the latest version of this story was published.
The Times is still seeking more information about this story and this post will be updated when more information becomes available.