It isn't a done deal quite yet, but on Wednesday night, Forest Lake, its police union and the Washington County Sheriff's Office reached a tentative agreement that could keep the city's Police Department intact.
The three-year contract agreement will be presented to union members Thursday for a vote. If the membership accepts it, then it also must be ratified by the City Council at its May 15 meeting.
Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, the union that represents the 23 Forest Lake police officers, said Wednesday that he and City Administrator Aaron Parrish met for a cup of coffee Wednesday morning.
"We agreed we weren't miles away ... and we deserved to take another look at this," Gormley said.
Despite vehement objections from many in the community, the Forest Lake City Council on Monday night voted 3-2 to approve a contract with the Sheriff's Office to provide police services to the city of about 20,000 people. The move meant the Police Department would be disbanded and officers would lose their jobs, with no guarantee of being hired by the Sheriff's Office.
Mayor Ben Winnick said the switch to county services would save the city about $385,000 a year. Opponents said the move was politically motivated.
Winnick, in a statement Thursday, said:
"I've lived in this city my entire life and have never seen the community come together like this before.
"I supported Contract Law Enforcement with Washington County from the beginning, because I believe that the Washington County Sheriff's Office would offer the citizens of Forest Lake an increased level of patrol and protection while reducing overall costs. 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.
"Prior to the announcement from Washington County that they were withdrawing their proposal, the City had reached out to police representatives to see if we could find common ground.
"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 City Council is expected to vote Monday at 6:30 p.m. on whether to rescind the earlier decision to close the police department.
In a joint news release Wednesday evening, the city, union and county said the new agreement calls for salary increases in each of the next three years, continuing retiree health benefits, and enhancing the arbitration process. The latter two points, among others, had not been included in what the city said was its final offer last weekend.
Following Monday night's vote by the council, as many as 1,000 students at Forest Lake Area High School walked out of school and marched to City Hall to show support for the Police Department. Residents also packed a Washington County Board meeting on Tuesday and implored commissioners to reject any contract with the city. The issue was scheduled to be on the agenda again at the May 16 board meeting.
"I'm glad they've got a tentative decision," said Sheriff Dan Starry, who plans no further action on the proposed contract between the county and the city.
Starry and his predecessor, Bill Hutton, both said earlier that they hadn't initiated the contract but were only responding to a request from Forest Lake city leaders.
Several cities in the county, including Mahtomedi, Afton and Hugo, contract with the Sheriff's Office and don't have their own police departments. None, though, is as big as Forest Lake.
In the news release, Forest Lake Police Chief Richard Peterson said, "This has been an extremely difficult conversation and I have been proud of the professionalism my officers have maintained during this discussion. If approved, I look forward to collaborating with the City Council to provide high quality law enforcement services that meet the expectations of the council and community."
Staff writer Kevin Giles contributed to this report.