Parking meters generated some big legal questions in Willmar

It’s been quite a while since Willmar began trying to regulate the length of time cars could be parked on the downtown streets. The city has always had problems controlling traffic since the days of oxcarts hauling customers into town, and a watering trough was located off Ninth Street. The latter was an attempt to avoid the congestion of carts, wagons and other means of transportation from completely blocking the streets and creating more traffic jams. There were a lot of those when Litchfield Avenue was U.S. Highway 12. Since downtown Willmar had very few alleys, trucks loaded and unloaded right on Willmar’s main street, blocking it completely at times.

The arrival of automobiles on the scene only made matters worse. Sometime between 50 and 60 years ago, Chief of Police Joe Jacobson measured the areas where parking was permitted and where it was not.

Surprisingly, the bare curbs and the yellowpainted ones each had just about equal amounts of space. Informative as that survey was it did absolutely nothing to solve the parking problem.

One lady did announce that she had had nothing but trouble finding parking places in the business district until she left the church in which she had been a lifelong member, and joined another Willmar church, and had no problem finding space from that time on. Several people who were deeply involved in the parking situation kept an eye out for her downtown arrivals and both reported that they had seen her, time after time, park in front of a place of business, go directly into it, conduct her business, return to her vehicle and drive away.

A traveling salesman who visited Willmar frequently sent a letter to the powers that were, with copies to local media, recommending clearing the block between Third and Fourth street and Benson and Pacific avenues, to create a municipal parking lot. One business man wanted so much of the business district to be razed for such a lot that his friends insisted that he wanted what was then downtown Willmar to be one big parking lot with his store in the middle.

An “honor system” was tried by which businessmen and employees would park several blocks from the business district. That didn’t work. For a week or two downtown Willmar saw no cars driven by people who worked there, but it wasn’t long before the honor system petered out and by 9 a.m., when the stores opened, most of the parking places had been taken by people who worked there, leaving very little space for customers. Policemen were ordered to ticket every car that was parked in the same place every day. That worked for a little while, but was very unsatisfactory overall.

Then someone got the idea of installing parking meters, and it wasn’t long before they appeared on all the downtown curbs. That worked, but a lot of people didn’t understand how it worked. They’d cruise around until they found a meter which still had time left on the dial, park, and leave before that expired. Others would park, put enough money in a meter for an hours parking, transact their business and come back and sit in their cars until the meter time ran out.

Walter Hedlund farmed out in Gennessee Township, but he also had a lot of business to transact in Willmar. He didn’t like the meters, but he obeyed them until, one day when he was in Steone Johnson’s barber shop in the basement of the Willmar building. He’d parked where he could keep an eye on his car until Steone finished his hair cut. As he got out of the chair he looked out the window at his car, which still had 10 minutes on the meter. A policeman was looking in all directions, didn’t see anyone and started writing a ticket.

Hedlund asked all of the five people then in the shop to be witnesses. He kept that ticket in his car, because it was the last ticket he’d get in Willmar. From that day on he parked in any vacant space, never put even a penny in a meter. Naturally, he picked up tickets. He owed several hundred dollars in unpaid tickets when the city police finally took action. They arrested Walter. They did say, when they arrested him, that they’d cancel all the tickets he’d collected, but Walter said, no, he’d pay the tickets as soon as the Willmar Police Department would accept the fact that the officer had written a ticket on a car which still had 10 minutes on the meter so he was being fined for parking legally.

The chief of police offered to tear up the ticket but Walter said, “No. That’s a legal document and tearing it up wouldn’t be legal.”

The situation turned into a comedy. Whenever they met, the Chief would ask Walter if he was willing to pay those fines, because the total was growing rapidly. Every time Walter came to Willmar he’d pick up at least one more ticket, but he wouldn’t be party to anything illegal, like tearing up the original ticket, even though it was wearing out because he’d carried it so long.

Several years later city officials had received so many complaints about the way the tickets were being handled that the meters were removed.