McLeod County and the city of Silver Lake have begun talks to have the McLeod County Sheriff's Office provide police services in Silver Lake.
As service from the county would replace the city's own police department, the decision to contract with the county by the Silver Lake City Council has drawn criticism at public meetings.
"I have nothing against the county (sheriff's office)," said Silver Lake resident Tim Grenke. "It's just not worth losing having a neighbor as a policeman."
Historically, the city of Silver Lake has had a full-time chief and a full-time officer, in addition to its part-time officers. The previous chief resigned Nov. 11, 2019, leading the city to seek candidates to fill the position. Four were interviewed.
"The council ultimately did a second interview with two applicants," said City Clerk Jon Jerabek. "They approved hiring one of them on March 16."
However, following a background investigation, the council was advised not to move forward with the hiring. The Silver Lake City Council went on to explore a merger with Lester Prairie police. At a July 6 meeting meant to explore the costs and benefits of keeping Silver Lake's police department as it was, a merger with Lester Prairie, and contracting with the county for 40 hours of coverage (down from the 80 full-time hours between the chief and full-time officer), council members learned the city's full-time officer was departing to work for the county. The departure at the end of last month leaves the city with its five part-time officers.
That led the city to create an online survey to gather feedback from city residents. Residents could also fill out a paper version from the city office. Results were split between keeping the police department and pursuing other options.
"The survey was to get a sample of what people were thinking," Jerabek said. "It wasn't voting on what the council would do."
At a July 20 council meeting, Mayor Dorothy Butler made a motion to keep the Silver Lake Police Department and increase wages. Councilor Brenda Fogarty supported the motion, aimed at helping to attract more candidates for the full-time positions. Butler said it was more important to be able to save a life than save a few dollars. Fogarty said the city could gain more from having its own department.
The motion was defeated in a 3-2 vote with councilors Nolan Johnson, Josh Winfrey and Chris Penaz opposed.
Winfrey said contracting with the sheriff's office would bring stability, and noted the city has had six police chiefs since 2001. He made a motion to contract with the McLeod County Sheriff's Office for 40 hours for one year. It passed 3-2 with Johnson and Penaz also in support.
The McLeod County Board began discussing a potential contract in a workshop Aug. 4. Since the decision was made by the Silver Lake City Council, some residents have pushed back with a petition against the move. A reporter reached out to the mayor and members of the council for comment, but was told they would not comment due to advice from the city attorney.
For Grenke, the issue is primarily one of public safety. The longtime EMT and firefighter has lived in Silver Lake for 25 years, and recalls numerous calls where having a local officer at the scene first, and able to secure it, kept everyone working quickly and safely.
"There is an officer on scene within minutes," he said. "I'm not saying the county can't provide security, but they could be elsewhere, or could take longer to get to town. And there could be a time where there isn't time to wait for them (to secure the scene), but we'll have to."
Grenke said an insufficient number of city residents were able to weigh in on the major change with the survey, as many did not know of it or weren't able to respond in time due to a lack of access to the internet. He is part of a group of residents going door to door gathering opposition to the change.
"A lot of people didn't have any idea this was going on," he said.
If the city contracts with the county, Grenke says he'll miss the rapport with local officers, who he saw as often willing to stop and chat with residents. He understands the city could continue to have a high turnover rate with local officers.
"Everybody is looking for the next big thing and Silver Lake is kind of a stepping stone," he said. "I don't see it as a problem. Turnover is part of life."