FOREST LAKE, Minn. - Forest Lake Police officers have unanimously voted to accept a new labor deal with the city, leaving just one more hurdle to clear before the community can begin to leave an acrimonious chapter behind.
Members of both the patrol and sergeant's unions accepted the terms of the deal, which lasts three years, includes two and three percent pay raises and allows the force to maintain its health care benefits for both active and retired officers.
The only step that remains is for the Forest Lake City Council to pass the measure during a special meeting this Monday. City Administrator Aaron Parrish is recommending the council approve the deal.
"I think fundamentally the most important thing for us to be focused on is a healing process and a relationship rebuilding process and I think we've got a good framework for that," Parrish said.
The dramatic turnaround in this story arc comes just two days after the council voted 3-2 to disband the police department and contract with the Washington County Sheriff's Office. Monday night's meeting ended with residents who had packed the council chambers booing, jeering and shouting down Mayor Ben Winnick, who cast the deciding vote.
On Wednesday, the city unexpectedly announced in a press release that it has reached a tentative agreement with Law Enforcement Labor Services (LELS) to keep the Forest Lake Police Department.
The city says the agreement includes salary increases and maintenance of retiree health benefits, which had been in question. The agreement stipulates that a consultant will provide recommendations to improve police operations and long-term financial stability. It also requires parties from the city and police department to participate in a conflict resolution and mediation process.
There are many reasons why the city was considering disbanding the police department. Parrish said, "Clearly there are relationship issues here and some are historical and politically orientated. Certainly some are issues of financing. Some are issues just related to service delivery."
Forest Lake City Councilor Mara Bain said when looking at the city's budget, they can afford to keep their police force.
Bain celebrated the agreement on her Facebook Wednesday evening, saying "FLPD is saved!!!!!"
"Monday, the city and the police department decided we're getting a divorce. And now we've said, 'OK, we're sticking together for the kids.' And the kids have pulled us together and we need to figure this out," Bain said.
“This has been an extremely difficult conversation, but I have been proud of the professionalism my officers have maintained during this discussion,” Forest Lake Police Chief Richard Peterson said in a press release. “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."
LELS issued a statement following Monday's vote to disband the force, saying they had rejected an offer from the city over the weekend that would have cut key benefits for police officers.
The union said at that time that they had hoped both sides could return to the bargaining table, but the city had informed them that a rejection of the offer would give the council no choice but to disband the department.
The press release issued by the city Wednesday did not say exactly what prompted the agreement, but did state that Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry was "integral in encouraging the parties to find a solution."
The Washington County Board of Commissioners has removed their consideration of the contract law enforcement services agreement from their May 16 agenda.
The City of Forest Lake's release quoted Starry as saying, “It is clear to me that the public values the service the Forest Lake Police Department provides. I look forward to maintaining the collaborative relationship we have with the Forest Lake Police Department.”
The agreement is subject to city council ratification. That is scheduled to happen at a special meeting Monday, May 15, at 6:30 p.m.