Chicago sign rules are a threat to free speech

Creating a sign legally in the Windy City can be a herculean feat, but a majority of city aldermen have signed on to a new ordinance that would make things a little bit easier.

Unfortunately, concerns over aldermanic power remain. Specifically, allowing an alderman a say in whether to allow a sign raises serious free-speech concerns.

There’s no question the system needs an overhaul. Doing something as simple as stenciling “Bob’s Burgers” on the window of a new Chicago eatery is a process that requires a government-approved “sign erector,” involves at least three different city agencies, costs hundreds of dollars in fees and can take months.

Here’s how the whole thing works:

Putting up any sign in Chicago requires a “sign construction building permit.” A business owner must pay a licensed sign erector to file an application for this permit, which can take months.

Chicago’s Municipal Code defines a sign as anything from neon lights to a sticker attached to a window for more than 60 days.

If the sign overhangs the sidewalk, even by an inch, the business will also have to get a “public way use permit,” which requires a majority vote of approval from the entire City Council. This process can also take months, and the business owner must renew the public way use permit every five years by going through the same process all over again.

That’s where the new ordinance comes in. Under the proposed changes, only signs that extend more than a foot over the public way would require approval by the full City Council, likely shaving weeks off the approval process for many small-business owners.

Should City Council approve these proposed reforms, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection could grant approval for a public way use permit for a sign that protrudes by less than a foot into the public way without full Council approval.

That's a step in the right direction.

But before issuing the permit, the commissioner would have to notify the alderman for the ward where the sign would be located and solicit a recommendation from him or her. The alderman in question would have 10 days to respond to the commissioner’s request. If he or she remains silent, the commissioner would issue the permit.

However, what happens in those 10 days should concern any Chicagoan who might not be on his or her alderman’s good side.

The founder of Felony Franks, Jim Andrews, knows this all too well.

Felony Franks operated with the noble goal of rehabilitating ex-offenders through honest work. But Bob Fioretti, the alderman on Chicago’s Near West Side where Felony Franks was located, didn’t like the name of Andrews’ hot-dog business, and blocked Andrews’ request to hang a sign.

Andrews won the right to hang his sign after a lengthy court battle, but by then he was forced to close his shop. His son now operates Felony Franks in suburban Oak Park.

There is no good reason Chicago aldermen should have a say regarding how small-business people enhance their operations with simple signage. A sensible safety inspection should be all that’s required. And should a sign prove a nuisance to neighbors, there are plenty of rules already on the books to address it.

If Chicago aldermen are truly looking to improve the sign-approval process, they could start by getting out of the way.

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