Washington County Sheriff prompted Forest Lake to reverse itself on getting rid of police force
FOREST LAKE, Minn.—It didn't take Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry long to make his decision.
After watching the Forest Lake City Council vote to disband the city's police department on Monday night, sitting through lengthy public comments at the Washington County Board meeting on Tuesday morning, and meeting with Forest Lake police officers later that night, Starry said he knew he had to withdraw a controversial proposal for his office to provide police services to the city.
The proposal, requested by Forest Lake in January, had been approved 3-2 by the city council after months of protests from the city's residents.
"I watched, I listened, I heard, and I knew that by getting involved, I could potentially have a positive effect," Starry said. "I had to make a decision as a leader of this organization and for the citizens of Washington County and Forest Lake to find a good solution."
Starry and other elected officials asked city and police union representatives to meet Wednesday night at Forest Lake City Center, where they reached a tentative agreement to keep the department operating through at least 2019.
The contract was approved Thursday, May 11, by the union's members, which include the department's patrol officers and sergeants; it still needs approval by the city council, which will hold a special meeting Monday night.
The three-year agreement includes annual pay raises — 2 percent in 2017 and 2018 and 3 percent in 2019, and maintenance of retiree health benefits, which had been a concern in previous discussions. The agreement also calls for changes to the city's arbitration and conflict-resolution process and a pledge to hire an outside consultant to improve department operations.
Forest Lake police officers have been working without a formal contract since Jan. 1, said Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services. He said he expects the council to approve the contract Monday night.
Gormley credited public support from Forest Lake and elsewhere in Minnesota for the reversal.
Hundreds of people packed Forest Lake City Council meetings to protest. On Tuesday, about 1,300 students from Forest Lake schools walked out to show their support; the walkout went viral and made national news.
"They continually lifted our spirits and clearly their efforts made the difference in the end," Gormley said. "Their support was truly a reflection of the men and women who work for the Forest Lake Police Department and how much historically they have done to establish themselves in that community."
County Commissioner Fran Miron, who represents the Forest Lake area, said supporters of the police department inundated him with so many calls and emails — "700 to 1,000 at least" — that his computer system crashed a couple of times.
"I'm just looking at my computer screen right now, and they keep coming in," he said during a phone interview from his home office Thursday morning. "I got one at 8:23, at 8:29, at 8:30, at 8:32, at 8:52, another one at 8:52 ... one at 9:05, one at 9:12, one at 9:13, one at 9:26, one at 9:30. I hope people will forgive me for not getting back to them right away. They should know that I've read them, and I've listened to the messages."
Miron said Starry, who was sworn in as sheriff on May 2, made the right call.
"I've got a lot of faith in our sheriff and our law enforcement in Washington County, and there is no question in my mind that given the opportunity, they would have done a great job for Forest Lake," Miron said. "Having said that, you do need community support, and that would have taken some time to build."
County Administrator Molly O'Rourke added: "People had a concern, and they voiced it, and people listened. The sheriff was very attuned to what he was hearing from the citizenry, from the officers, from the elected officials, and he made a decision as to what he felt was best for his department."
Starry, the former chief deputy of the department, was tapped to be sheriff after Bill Hutton resigned to be head of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association. Starry has worked for the sheriff's office since 1993.
The sheriff's office proposal for Forest Lake carried a price tag of about $2.9 million a year, a move officials said could save the city about $387,000 annually.
Hope for healing
Mayor Ben Winnick said Thursday that he supported the plan because he believed the sheriff's office would offer residents "an increased level of patrol and protection while reducing overall costs."
Winnick and council members Ed Eigner and Michael Freer voted for the switch to the sheriff's office; council members Mara Bain and Sam Husnik opposed it. Bain and Husnik are the newcomers on the board, having been elected last fall.
"I still believe that the Washington County Sheriff's Office would have done a fine job serving the residents of Forest Lake and doing so with most of our current officers remaining here," Winnick said in a prepared statement. "This was an incredibly difficult process to go through for everyone involved, but it was an important conversation to have as a community."
Even before Starry told city officials Wednesday that he was withdrawing the proposal, Winnick said, city officials had reached out to police representatives "to see if we could find common ground." He said both sides "made some tough concessions" in order to come to an agreement.
"In addition to the labor agreement, I am encouraged by the organizational and conflict resolution efforts we will be engaging in," Winnick said. "I look forward to enhancing the council's relationship with the Forest Lake Police Department, and I will personally do what I can to make sure this relationship is as strong as it can be."
"I'd like to commend the citizens of Forest Lake for coming together like they did on this issue," he said. "I've lived in this city my entire life and have never seen the community come together like this before."
Miron, the county commissioner, said he hopes the community can put past differences aside.
"I'm a strong believer in prayer," he said. "A lot of people were praying for us to make a good decision, to help resolve this conflict, and I think that helped in the process. My prayer now is that there is healing that goes on within that community, there's compassion between the various groups and that they come together now. I'm optimistic that that's going to happen."
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.