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Council debates police shifts, roundabout

CLOQUET CITY COUNCIL

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Former Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande spoke bluntly during the Cloquet City Council work session regarding a request from the police department to go back to 12-hour shifts.

"I've never heard so much nonsense in my life," said Lamirande when Mayor Dave Hallback — a retired police officer who served with and under Lamirande — solicited his opinion from the audience.

Interim Police Chief Jeff Palmer had made the request to switch to 12-hour shifts from 11.5 hour shifts, noting that former Chief Steve Stracek had reduced the shifts by a half hour to save money. Palmer asserted that the shift change affected morale and, because shift start times are staggered, sometimes leaves the city with only two officers on shift from 5:15-6:15 p.m., the busiest time of the day.

"It was a huge morale issue when it happened," Palmer told the council. "We are the only [law enforcement] agency in Carlton County not on 12-hour shifts. ... It also leaves us without supervisors for one or two hours, and some of the officers have less than three years experience."

The request sparked extensive debate among the councilors, in part because the change to the schedule by Stracek — made despite employee objections — was cited as one of the reasons police department union members passed a vote of no confidence against him.

A professional investigation into the complaints against Stracek noted that the chief implemented a DuPont shift schedule in January 2015 at the request of staff, which meant officers and staff worked approximately 15 shifts a month, had a stretch of seven consecutive days off every month and banked an additional 104 hours of comp time annually. He implemented the schedule on the condition that it did not lead to increased sick leave use resulting in overtime to fill those shifts, a problem identified by a 2014 study of the Cloquet Police Department and Lamirande when he was chief.

According to the report, Stracek found a pattern of sick leave use at the beginning and end of scheduled seven-days off, and decided to switch to an 11.5 hour shift, which reduced officers nine days of banked time off, saving the city money, but angering officers.

Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge argued against the shift change.

"The officers get nine days back, but what is the benefit to the public?" the retired Duluth policeman asked Palmer, noting that the city gets more shifts over a year from the 11.5 hour time than 12 hours. "I don't see a benefit for the citizens giving officers extra time off."

Interim City Administrator James Barclay brought up the issue of abuse of sick time — documented in both the police department study and the Stracek investigation — and pointed out that shift length likely won't affect sick time abuse.

That led to a lengthy discussion of the problem of sick time abuse, and how to correct that. Lamirande said misuse of sick time (basically using it like additional vacation days) is "a learned behavior" that he remembers observing when he first started. It's still an issue, he said.

"Are we playing a shell game by manipulating schedules when we should fix the actual contract negotiations?" asked Ward 1 Councilor Jeff Rock. "Can they be paid for unused sick time?"

Currently veteran officers are paid for a third of their unused sick days, Barclay explained, noting there is no cap on the number of sick days officers can accrue. He noted the city doesn't offer short- or long-term disability insurance.

"I don't know why you're discussing this before there's a new (police) chief," said Lamirande. "It literally cost Steve Stracek his job. That's how much of a big deal it is."

Shift changes affect time at work but also time with family, vacations and even health, the former chief pointed out.

He admitted that he was disappointed when Stracek changed from a four-days-on/four-days-off schedule implemented by Lamirande to the 12-hour DuPont schedule requested by staff.

"I went to a 4/4 based on science," Lamirande said. "The DuPont is the most unhealthy schedule there is, look it up."

He said the study talked about alternative shifts, and suggested hiring more people — which the city has done — so the department could come up with a schedule that allowed them better productivity and more officers at key times.

"You want your employees to be happy, but you also have to blend that (consideration) with the service side of it," Lamirande said.

At-large Councilor Adam Bailey recommended the council discuss the request at a future work session. Ward 2 Councilor David Bjerkness suggested waiting for the new city administrator and Kolodge suggested waiting until they hire a permanent police chief. The city has not yet begun the search for a new police chief because they were waiting for the new city administrator to start, officials previously stated.

A ROUNDABOUT DISCUSSION

Councilors also heard from Minnesota Department of Transportation officials regarding the roundabout proposed for the intersection of Highway 33, Frontage Road and the Interstate 35 ramps.

MnDOT Project Manager Brian Larson explained the proposed project, and said the state believes the roundabout will best solve the issues plaguing the dangerous intersection, because its design will eliminate T-bone crashes, slow drivers down and dramatically reduce the severity of injuries when there are crashes.

MnDOT will chip-seal the roadway coming from the bridge to the roundabout to add traction on slippery days, he said, and there will be lots of signs warning people that a roundabout is ahead and they need to reduce speeds.

The plans for the roundabout are complete and were sent to St. Paul for final review Tuesday, Larson said, with bids on the estimated $2.1 million projected expected to go out in December. Construction should begin in May and be completed sometime in September. Funding is 100 percent federal dollars, he said. The roundabout will be very well lit, he noted, explaining that it will be built for even excessively large for long vehicles carrying things like windmill turbines to get through.

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