Residents packing a Forest Lake City Council meeting erupted in cheers and applause Monday evening when a controversial decision to disband the police department was reversed.
On a 4-1 vote, Mayor Ben Winnick and council members approved a new three-year labor agreement with police, putting to rest a contentious four-month community protest.
"I can't imagine it any other way," said Jan Janssen, who said she attended every City Council meeting where the police proposal was debated. "Forest Lake needs its police department."
Jeff Gort said he and other residents proved they could fight City Hall. "In this case, it worked beautifully," said Gort, a Woodbury police officer. "This is what we've been fighting four months for."
Council Member Mike Freer cast the lone vote against the labor agreement, saying it didn't go far enough to protect police. Just one week ago, he and Winnick and Council Member Ed Eigner voted to end at least 80 years of community policing in Forest Lake and contract instead with the Washington County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement coverage.
On Monday, Winnick and Eigner changed their votes on the issue.
Council members who voted to dissolve the 25-officer department said the change would save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in a cash-strapped city budget.
The backlash that followed included a Forest Lake Area High School walkout of as many as 1,000 students and a packed Washington County boardroom where residents asked commissioners to reject a contract with the city.
A day later, Sheriff Dan Starry did just that. "My decision came down to believing the two sides could come together," he said. And they did, negotiating a labor agreement that would keep the Forest Lake police department operating at least through 2019.
"I think the people spoke," resident Matt Arntzen, who's been a St. Paul police officer for 16 years, said after Monday's vote. "The tipping point was the kids walking out of school. That spoke volumes."
Hundreds at the meeting stood and greeted police officers — including Chief Rick Peterson and Capt. Greg Weiss — entering the chamber with thunderous applause.
Forest Lake's reversal is rare in Minnesota, where as many as 200 local police departments have closed since the late 1960s to cut costs and avoid duplications in enforcement.
In Forest Lake, however, public outcry engulfed the city of 20,000 residents. Uniformed police officers lined up at City Council meetings. Residents produced a petition with 6,000 signatures and shared stories about personal connections with the police force.
Starry said the Sheriff's Office only submitted a contract and proposed budget at the city's request. The Sheriff's Office currently contracts with 15 Washington County cities for law enforcement.
The new labor agreement includes a 2 percent wage increase in both 2017 and 2018, a 3 percent increase in 2019, and a retiree health-insurance benefit. Police and city leaders also agreed to a "conflict resolution and mediation process," and to have a third party assess the department's operations.
Chief Peterson's officers had been working without a formal contract since Jan. 1.
The Forest Lake police budget this year is just over $4 million, with city taxpayers covering about $3.3 million.
Winnick said a county law enforcement contract would have saved Forest Lake about $385,000 a year.
In an interview Monday, Winnick said he was disappointed when the Sheriffwithdrew its contract before it was ratified by the County Board.
"Our County Commissioner Fran Miron really got scared" by the community feedback, Winnick said. "That's my opinion, anyway. The sheriff pulled the proposal. The night before he was here talking to our officers about how they would shift laterally into [the sheriff's] department."
"Fear didn't enter into at all," Miron said Monday night. "The public needed to be heard."
Winnick said rumors of bad blood between him and the police and assertions that the actions were politically motivated are not true.
"I'm not going to sacrifice the well-being of 20,000 people to get revenge on something," he said. "I would never do that. We have a lot of good officers on the department. This was looking at how can we do something better."
He added, "It's time to get this behind us and start working with the department to move forward."
The city's 2017 budget already accounts for pay raises in the new agreement, said City Administrator Aaron Parrish.
Staff writer Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037