An emotional standing-room-only crowd filled the Forest Lake City Council chambers Monday evening as the council and mayor voted 3-2 to disband the city’s Police Department.
The vote, technically, was to approve a contract with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. But its effect will be that 23 sworn police officers who patrol a city of more than 18,000 people, will be out of a job.
Forest Lake police have been working without a contract since January, and the vote on Monday night capped a weekend filled with emergency meetings between the city, the police union and its members.
Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, the union that represents Forest Lake police, said police officers and their families walked out of Monday night’s meeting, many in tears.
Mayor Ben Winnick cast the deciding vote to accept the proposal from Washington County. Council Members Ed Eigner and Mike Freer voted with him. Voting against it were Mara Bain and Sam Husnik.
“The community has spoken loudly throughout this process in support of the police,” Bain said. “Unfortunately, our City Council got it wrong tonight.”
She said the Washington County Board still must ratify the contract with Forest Lake.
“At the core of any successful law enforcement relationship is community trust … and this community has made its preferences known,” she said. “This will not be a successful relationship with Washington County. They need to look beyond the dollars and see the people and the relationships and do the right thing.”
Winnick and Eigner did not return phone messages left at their homes on Monday night; Freer’s cellphone had no voice mail.
The mayor said previously the switch to Washington County would save the city $385,000 a year and put three more officers on the streets.
The Forest Lake police budget this year is just over $4 million, with city taxpayers covering about $3.3 million. The Sheriff’s Office proposal anticipates an annual cost of about $2.9 million, with a one-time cost of about $88,000.
Police Chief Rick Peterson said in mid-April that his department has been “very fiscally responsible” and that his budget compares well with similar-sized cities such as Stillwater, Rosemount, Farmington and Elk River.
Gormley said the union offered a proposal to the city weeks ago for a two-year contract with no wage increases for officers, but the city only wanted to talk about layoff procedures and the process for turning in their duty weapons.
He said he got a phone call at 10 p.m. Friday that the city wanted an emergency meeting with the union at 1 p.m. Saturday.
At that meeting, the city offered a three-year contract with a 2 percent wage increase each year. But it stripped all seniority rights, required officers to give up bargaining and arbitration rights and eliminated post-retirement health insurance.
“They were holding a gun to our heads and said accept the contract or there’s nothing we can do for you,” Gormley said. “A take-it-or-leave-it type thing.”
Officers voted down the contract offer at a meeting Sunday morning.
Gormley said that in a motion made Monday night, the mayor said “something to the effect that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office should consider hiring the members of the Forest Lake Police Department. There’s no guarantee. They’re just out of a job.” Monday night’s meeting was a continuation of a May 1 meeting that included 4½ hours of nonstop public comment, Bain said.
“It was fascinating,” she said. “People were riveted … by story after story of what this police department has done for this community.”