Guest editorial: Former Park Record reporter recalls child’s battle with Park City Hall
June 19, 2018
All Michael Jensen wanted to do was make a little money selling worms. At 10, he was something of an entrepreneur, much like the kids selling lemonade on a hot summer day. He put out his cardboard sign in front of the Jensen's historic, if modest, abode on upper Park Avenue: "Worms, 75 cents a dozen." It was, after all, fishing season — school was out and the mountain summer seemed to stretch into the distant future.
But the young lad was taken aback, his mother said over the phone, when a police officer warned that he was running afoul of Park City's new sign ordinance. It was the summer of 1983, and I had just joined the staff of The Park Record — my first paid gig as a journalist.
My beat included covering the City Council that was housed in the monolithic Marsac School — turned City Hall — perched above Swede Alley, like a castle where the laws were laid down from on high. The newest of them, an ordinance aimed at real estate signs, had just been adopted in reaction to complaints that the sprouting one-armed masts made the entire berg look like it was up for sale.
The council and the mayor in the one-time mining town that showed the first signs of morphing into a destination resort, were sensitive to appearances. So, they ordered that such signs be placed parallel to streets, rather than at right-angles, to decrease the sensation that entire blocks of residents were cashing out and moving on.
But apparently, Michael Jensen had not read my story in the Record the previous week that asserted the council was taking the matter seriously. For the best visibility, the lad had tacked his hand-made sign on a telephone pole near his house at right angles to the street so it would be noticed by anyone driving up or down Park Avenue. And what would-be fisherman could pass up such a deal: a dozen worms for only 75 cents. Just think of those trout.
Michael Jensen was a cute kid and the Record photographer caught his dismay as I interviewed him standing alongside the violation in question. The story quoted him as saying he just wanted to make a little money for summer activities, like Little League. But fines for such improprieties were so steep that he would most likely have to sell worms for the entire summer and still end up in the red — bankrupt before he even got to sixth grade. Nonetheless, Michael Jensen stood his ground — he would not take down the sign, he said. He would fight City Hall.
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It wasn't his first run in with the municipality. During the 1982 Art Festival, he had set up a lemonade stand at Fourth Street between Main and Park Avenue. The city quickly shut him down when official festival vendors complained he was stealing their business.
Editor David Hampshire placed the photo of the sad kid on the front page above the fold of the next issue of the town's then-weekly newspaper. When the paper hit the streets Thursday morning, city officials were, shall we say, a little sheepish and steered clear of the Alpha Beta grocery store — a chancy place with constituents on the war path. It seemed as though the entire town of some 4,000 Parkites was downright peeved. What in the world is the City Council doing to kids, like Michael Jensen, they demanded.
Councilman Al Horrigan said it best at the body's next meeting: "We have just stepped on our own (expletive deleted)."
Michael Jensen's sign, "Worms, 75 cents a dozen," remained for the rest of the summer — and, no, he was not hassled or fined. Call it the power of a free and unfettered press.
I've been writing news stories for 35 years and that one is still among my favorites.
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