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Broadening policing discussion, Newport City Council wants to explore merger

Newport City Council members want to investigate more law enforcement options for the city.

The council has directed City Administrator Deb Hill to inquire whether city leaders in Cottage Grove or St. Paul Park, or both, are interested in studying a police merger. If they are, Newport may commission an independent study of its policing options.

A merger with one or both of its neighboring cities’ police departments would be a third alternative for Newport, where until last month debate focused on whether to retain the Newport Police Department or enter into a long-term service contract with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The city is already contracting with the sheriff’s office for law enforcement assistance through the end of the year. The city sought the sheriff’s help after the retirement this fall of former police chief Curt Montgomery and while the department is down to five officers.

All five council members supported having Hill try to meet with Cottage Grove and St. Paul Park city administrators to gauge interest in a merger study.

However, the council remains divided over the future of policing in Newport.

Mayor Tim Geraghty and council member Bill Sumner have indicated support for contracting with the sheriff’s office.

Geraghty previously said he had not made up his mind, but on Thursday he suggested a two-year contract with the sheriff’s office.

“The big thing is now this department needs direction, leadership and some supervision, and I think the county sheriff will do that,” he said.

Council members Tracy Rahm and Tom Ingemann have questioned information prepared by Hill about the costs of a long-term contract with the sheriff’s office. Rahm said an informational flier sent by the city to residents was “slanted” toward contracting with the sheriff, and he said he wants to make sure the council’s decision about policing aligns with the city’s long-term plans.

Ingemann was even more blunt as he quarreled with Sumner during a Thursday workshop. Ingemann said he’s open to a study of the three options, but contracting with the county is his “absolute last suggestion.”

Sumner questioned whether Ingemann would even consider changing his opinion after a study.

“I’m only one vote, for crying out loud,” Ingemann said.

Sumner said Ingemann is “a loud vote” who doesn’t always have good information.

“I want good information, not something that’s stuffed down my throat,” Ingemann replied.

While Rahm and Ingemann have complained about data prepared by Hill, Geraghty suggested that residents who recently spoke in favor of keeping the city’s police department may not reflect the broader public opinion. 

Geraghty also dismissed a petition to keep the police department that was signed by 300-plus people.

“I’m not sure people were informed of what they were signing,” he said, claiming a 9- or 10-year-old boy knocked on his door with the petition and only said the city may dissolve the police department.

Studying a police merger with either Cottage Grove or St. Paul Park was promoted by council member Dan Lund, who was viewed as the swing vote on whether to keep the city’s own department or enter into a long-term contract with Sheriff Bill Hutton’s office. 

“I haven’t reached a conclusion among the two current proposals,” Lund said.

Contracting with the sheriff’s office would cost less than the city maintaining its own department and the police officers could become sheriff’s deputies and continue to patrol Newport, according to a draft contract proposal. Supporters say the city would get equal or better law enforcement service through a sheriff’s contract, while opponents are skeptical about changes in service over time and fear losing the familiarity of their own department.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

(651) 459-7600
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