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Court: City violated order in dispute over fire departments

By: Laura Brown//December 4, 2023//

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Court: City violated order in dispute over fire departments

By: Laura Brown//December 4, 2023//

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A Hennepin County (Minnesota) judge ruled Nov. 21 that the city of Orono violated a temporary injunction issued by the court on July 14, 2023, concerning issues around terminating its fire service contract with the city of Long Lake. Judge Lauri Miller concluded that Orono willfully disobeyed the court’s order and placed Orono in constructive civil contempt.

Long Lake and Orono are adjacent western suburbs of Minneapolis. Operating since 1915, the Long Lake Fire Department (LLFD) has provided service to surrounding communities, including Orono. LLFD operates two fire stations (Fire Station 1 and Fire Station 2) without about 40 firefighters. Orono, Long Lake, and Medina, are parties to a 2002 “Contract for Fire Protection.” Orono and Long Lake each own 50% of Fire Station 1. Fire Station 2, on the other hand, is solely owned by Orono.

In 2022, the Orono City Council passed a resolution that established the Orono Fire Department. Orono took steps to establish its own fire departments and take control of Fire Stations 1 and 2.

Things began to deteriorate when Long Lake found a ladder truck that it intended to purchase for the LLFD. It needed approval from each contracting city for the purchase under the terms of the contract. Orono apparently used the information it learned about the truck to purchase the truck for itself.

Two months later, in December 2022, Orono hired the Long Lake fire chief of 15 years to be the chief of the Orono Fire Department. He approached Long Lake firefighters to join the Orono Fire Department. Although the Orono firefighters are permitted to work for more than one department, the chief stated that there were certain situations were firefighters could not respond to calls from Long Lake Fire Department.

Then, in May 2023, Orono drafted a needs assessment that included a plan for Orono to take over control of Fire Station 2 in 2023. The following month, Long Lake requested a temporary injunction enjoining Orono from violating the “Contract for Fire Protection,” soliciting Long Lake firefighters over to Orono, and from hindering Long Lake’s use of Fire Stations 1 and 2.

The temporary injunction was granted after a hearing on June 30. In a July 14 order, Orono was enjoined from “recruiting Long Lake firefighters to begin working for the Orono Fire Department.” The court also ordered that Orono not violate the Contract for Fire Protection, or from hindering Long Lake’s use of Fire Stations 1 and 2.

On Oct. 13, Long Lake claimed that Orono violated the court’s July 14 order. Orono had apparently planned for an architect to construct a building next to Fire Station 2 to house Orono’s fire trucks, without any consultation with Long Lake. Orono also held a public gathering regarding the new fire department; the event was apparently referred to as “Firefighter Recruitment Open House” in advertisements that were circulated before the event.

The court found that the Orono Fire Department public gathering was a recruitment event. It cited text messages sent to current and former Long Lake firefighters to communicate the event. The court concluded that this constituted “recruiting.” It also determined that the Orono Fire Chief did not feel bound by the court’s ruling. “Instead, it appears…he view[s] himself as free to have any discussion he wishes with any LLFD firefighter who applies for employment with Orono.”

Additionally, the court found that Orono violated its July 14 order when it took steps to construct a structure on the Fire Station 2 property. “The Court further finds that Orono took these steps unilaterally, without informing Long Lake, consulting with Long Lake, or seeking Long Lake’s approval for expansion of Fire Station 2. Orono seems to regard its planning process to expand Fire Station 2 as entirely within its own control, unaffected by anything set forth in the July 14 order.”

The court has ordered Orono to pay a fine of $2,000 for each instance of any future contact for recruitment purposes. It must also pay the costs and attorney’s fees incurred by Long Lake. Orono was also instructed that any other violations of the July 14 order could result in the issuance of a bench warrant or other contempt sanctions.

Orono has been ordered to show cause for why it should not be held in contempt for hindering the Long Lake Fire Department.

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