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Communication lacking during snow emergency: More than 130 vehicles cited, 25 towed in March 4 snowfall

In early March, an overnight snowstorm meant an unpleasant surprise for Hastings resident Jane Snyder.

Weather reports had been predicting snow, so Snyder watched the news to see if there were going to be any school closings or snow emergencies. Seeing none, she figured she would just have to get up early to clear the vehicle off before going to work. Snyder had parked her work vehicle on the street for the night, knowing she would be leaving at 6:30 a.m., before plows typically get to her street. But when she left her house the next morning, shortly before 5 a.m., the vehicle was gone, towed by the order of Hastings police.

Hastings has a policy that states a snow emergency goes into effect automatically when two inches of snow have fallen within a 24-hour period. No official declaration is necessary for the snow emergency to be in effect. During a snow emergency, vehicles are not allowed to park vehicles on the street until the street has been cleared to its full width. Police officers ticket cars parked on the streets and have them towed.

Earlier this winter, in mid-December, the Hastings Police Department issued a press release stating that it was stepping up snow emergency enforcement. The increase in enforcement was in response to a number of complaints made about a perceived lack of enforcement or effective removal of vehicles during a then-recent snow emergency, explained Chief of Police Paul Schnell.

"We received some quite strong feedback from community members that they wanted us to enforce the ordinance," he said.

"Snow emergency enforcement will include zero tolerance ticketing and towing of vehicles parked on City streets after a declaration of a snow emergency," the press release read.

The press release noted that, in most snow emergencies, city plow crews begin full-scale plowing between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Stepped up enforcement efforts meant police officers would begin ticketing and towing vehicles at 1 a.m. to clear the way for plow operators.

Snow emergencies are not uncommon, but the March 4 snowfall was unique. A substantial amount of snow fell in a short period of time, and the snow fell late at night. By 1 a.m. Monday morning, well over two inches of snow had accumulated, Schnell said, prompting officers to follow procedure to enforce the snow emergency ordinance. When it was all said and done, 133 vehicles were cited and 25 towed that day. An earlier snow emergency in February resulted in 56 vehicles cited and 10 towed.

When Snyder recovered her vehicle from the impound lot, she also received a ticket, which was issued at 1:50 a.m. She told city council members that her street didn't get plowed until after 10:30 a.m. that day, and that she didn't see any notice of the snow emergency until about 6 a.m.

"More notice, and notification when the snow emergency is in effect listed on the news, or different web sites would have saved me a lot of time and money and frustration this morning," Snyder wrote to the city council. "As well as other (residents) in Hastings who had the same thing happen to them because they thought they had more time before the emergency went into effect."

Schnell said that the city's priority is to get the roads as clear as possible so snow plows can do their work. Ticketing and towing can be simultaneous, he said, but since officers can write tickets faster than tow trucks can remove vehicles, there is sometimes a gap in time between when the ticket is written and when the vehicle is towed.

He said that the March 4 snowfall was complicated by the time frame as well as communication issues. But police find themselves in a difficult position, he said. On one hand, if officers don't enforce the ordinance, residents express their concerns. On the other hand, residents express concern over heavy enforcement as well.

A few city council members expressed interest in revisiting the ordinance following Snyder's complaint. Councilmember Tony Nelson informed his fellow councilmembers by email that he also has heard complaints about vehicles being towed.

"I think the whole towing of cars before 8 a.m. on streets that are not main roads in our town is a complete waste of time," he wrote. "...I think we are creating a bigger headache for all by doing this stepped up enforcement. I understand the logic, but I also expect some level of common sense when it comes to tagging and towing our resident's cars."

Councilmember Joe Balsanek raised some questions about how the city handles snow emergencies and suggested that the process could use some improvements.

"When we get as many complaints as we do then we need to take another look," he wrote. "This is a great expense, not an inconvenience to affected residents. They encumber a fine, a towing bill and perhaps a lost day at work. If the vehicle owner has school age children there is certainly a disruption there as well. Our residents deserve better."