TIME’S TICKING

North Dakota’s Endless Parking Meter War Splits a Family

One farmer fought battle after battle to ban the machines. Now, 70 years later, two of his ancestors stand on opposite sides of the great parking debate.

Time is ticking on a law that has kept parking meters off of North Dakota’s streets for seven decades.

North Dakota is the only state in the Union where parking meters are banned by law. The state legislature is moving forward though with a bill to repeal the ban and let cities charge for parking. The debate hasn’t just split the state, it’s divided a family responsible for the ban in the first place.

“My granddad was a wheat farmer who hated having to pay when he drove to town to shop,” said JoNell Bakke. “He wouldn’t pay a penny to park and neither will I!”

Bakke is talking about Howard Henry, who was single-handedly responsible for eliminating the meter scourge in the 1940s.

“Hard Wheat Henry” lived outside Minot, the closest big city. One day he drove into town to buy supplies and instead of feeding the meter right away, he stopped to talk to a friend. When a city worker handed him a citation, Henry was told that he should have paid as soon as he got out of his car. As the story goes, he stood there and fumed with a nickel in one hand and a ticket in the other. Henry was so angry that he swore this would never happen again to the good folks of North Dakota.

So he took his personal gripe to the people and collected enough signatures to for a ballot initiative to ban the meters. He won and the meters were pulled up.

In 1951, the legislature fought back and overturned the law. But along came Henry, who again got it reinstated with another ballot initiative. It’s stayed that way ever since.

JoNell wishes she had a nickel for every time a reporter has asked her about parking meters, but the oldest of Henry’s 23 grandchildren doesn’t mind.

“My grandfather was bigger than life. I’m so proud of him. Talking to you is a way to keep his memory alive,” she said.

As it turns out, Bakke’s upstart city cousin wants to undo her grandfather’s work.

Jake Joraanstad, 27, owns a software company with 40 employees in Fargo where he says the free parking his infamous uncle started has created chaos.

“If he were alive, I’d say to him, ‘Uncle Henry, if you come to Fargo, you’d understand there’s a parking problem,’” Joraanstad said. “Let’s not expand the reach of government. Let’s let the individual cities decide how they want to deal with meters.”

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Bakke, who lives up the road in Grand Forks, says the big cities of Fargo and Bismarck where parking is scarce, have given ridiculous arguments for wanting to repeal the ban.

“Once, they claimed that city workers who chalk the tires of parked cars were coming down with elbow shoulder injuries from the stress of having to bend down every two hours.”

Still, Joraanstad, who’s never even met Bakke, says, “Ornery people in North Dakota see the parking meters as an extra tax they have to pay. But with the new law, each city will get to decide how it wants to control parking. That sounds to me a lot more like freedom than a tax.”

“I’m less less angry at parking meters than I am at the politicians,” says Bakke, herself a former state senator .

“What makes me mad is that the State Legislature arbitrarily reversed a law which the people voted for two times! After a vote, if the people of North Dakota want the meters back, I’m fine with it.”

If Republican Gov. Doug Burgum signs the meter bill into law, Bakke said she’ll make sure it goes back to the people by creating a ballot initiative—just like her grandfather did.

Burgum, who actually pushed the law to to welcome back the parking meters has said they encourage turnover which leads to more retail sales for downtown businesses and more tax revenues for the state.

“It’s a big city versus rural issue. People who drive into town don’t want to pay to shop. Most of our politicians are from the city now, so they don’t undersand.“ says Joel Heitkamp, a former state lawmaker-turned talk show hows on Fargo’s Mighty 790 radio station.

There seems to be pattern here. Heitkamp is the brother of North Dakota’s lone Democratic Senator, Heidi Heitkamp. Joel Heitkamp believes Burgum’s agenda to reinstate paid public parking has to do with the fact that the governor owns property in Fargo himself.

Bakke agrees: “The governor rebuilt the entire downtown of Fargo. He wants to line his pockets.”

Heated discussions over Gov. Burgum’s business interests have going on since he decided to run for office early last year. A local entrepreneur, Burgum ran a software business which sold for more than $1 billion to Microsoft in 2001. After landslide election win this past November, questions arose over his involvement with a major real-estate development firm that owns many of Fargo’s apartment and office buildings. The Kilbourne Group is also partnered in major downtown project: a mixed-use tower called Block 9. Burgum has removed himself from of day-to-day operations with the Kilbourne Group to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

For how huge North Dakota is, the politics are very “small-town”—740,000 people live there and less than half that number voted in 2016.

In fact, it’s so hard to campaign in such a big, wide open state, when Howard Henry made a run for governor in the ’50s, instead of driving for miles on end to deliver his message, he just flew his farm plane over the towns and dropped political leaflets. After many tries and failures to win U.S. and state office in North Dakota, he finally became a state lawmaker in 1971.

“And you know what? He sat right up front, for every hearing,” said Bakke. “But he had a heart attack and died that very year.”

Before Henry passed on, though, he was awarded a particularly unusual keepsake. The city of Minot presented him with the original parking meter which started all of this talk. It sits, in JoNell’s living room, appropriately, next to the grandfather clock.

And it still gives you 12 minutes for a penny.