Signs of Opportunity & Freedom
By Nick Dranias
IJ Minnesota Chapter clients Truong Xuan Mai (above) and Dan Dahlen merely want to earn an honest living by hanging signs.
Hanging a sign involves the most basic skills—digging a hole, dropping in a couple of posts, filling the hole and attaching a board to the posts. So if you want to make a living hanging signs in Minneapolis, you might think all you would need to do is open your business and show proof of insurance.
You would, however, be sorely mistaken.
In Minneapolis, would-be sign hangers, like IJ clients Truong Xuan Mai and Dan Dahlen, need the blessing of a mid-level official at City Hall who has unilaterally declared that he will not approve anyone who seeks to install even “very simple, non-illuminated signs”—a perfect job for start-up entrepreneurs because such an occupation requires neither a great deal of education nor financial capital. At the same time, this official has refused to explain just what skill level is acceptable to him before he grants a sign hanger license. Anyone trying to make an honest living hanging “for rent” signs, for example, must try to meet whatever requirement the government official dreams up and hope for the best. In a nation that prides itself on the Rule of Law, this amounts to applicants having to bow to the Rule of Man.
That’s why Dahlen and Mai joined with the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter to file a lawsuit on May 4, 2006, to stop Minneapolis from withholding sign hanger licenses from entrepreneurs who meet the objective requirements of the City Code.
After a series of scandals, Minneapolis’ City Council enacted reforms in July 2002 to eliminate “competency testing” for sign hangers and other trades. Unfortunately, the Council’s job was only half done; it preserved boundless discretion over license issuance. Bureaucratic intervention in the sign hanger licensure process shows that government power- grabs inevitably result from laws that create authority to regulate without standards.
Those, like Mai, who have tried to play by unknowable rules have lost numerous opportunities while their license applications linger for months in bureaucratic limbo awaiting a governmental seal of approval. Others, like Dahlen, see no point in pursuing a Minneapolis sign hanger license at all.
“When my grandfather risked everything to start our company in 1956, he railed against the old-boy network that prevented him from getting a license in Minneapolis,” recalled Dahlen, whose business operates around Minneapolis, but not within the city limits. “The law was supposedly reformed a few years ago, but it sure looks like business as usual to me.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Dahlen Sign Company, Dahlen could not see a better way to honor his grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit than to challenge the descendants of the bureaucracy that barred access to the Minneapolis market. And Mai’s experience as a “boat person” refugee who escaped communist Vietnam during the late 1970s gives him unusual courage to fight City Hall.
Dahlen Sign Company v. City of Minneapolis advances the principle that Dan Dahlen and Truong Xuan Mai should be free to work as sign hangers—not at the whim of bureaucrats, but as a matter of constitutional right.
The lawsuit also introduced the IJ Minnesota Chapter’s newly published study, The Land Of 10,000 Lakes Drowns Entrepreneurs In Regulations [PDF], which spotlights regulations in Minnesota that bar entry to occupations that ordinarily would attract start-up entrepreneurs.
Together, Dahlen, Mai and the IJ Minnesota Chapter are fighting to ensure that the American Dream continues to show signs of life, especially for sign hangers.
Nick Dranias is an IJ Minnesota Chapter staff attorney.
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