How To Get What You Want At City Hall

For most billboard owners, your big boss is city hall. Without their permit and approval, you cannot build, or rent, or maintain your billboard. And because of their enormous power, it is essential that you have a good strategy for dealing with them in a manner that can get you what you want.

Get Personal

Get to know the person who issues permits for billboards in your market. Don’t be corny about it, that will undermine you. But learn their name and say “Hello _________” every time you see them. They will, over time, get to know who you are, and that personal touch will make it easier to get the benefit of the doubt when issues come up. It is a lot easier to be mean to a faceless corporation than to their buddy who they say hi to all the time. Do not, contrary to what some people will tell you, get too close to them. This will suggest that you are possibly bribing them or doing something else illegal, and will force them to get tough on you to dispel any rumors. Also, if you get too personal, and it turns out that you really don’t like each other, you’re screwed. I knew an operator that went so far as to ask out on dates the female inspectors just to try and get an advantage. That’s stupid, and only results in trouble later.

Establish Trust

Never try and cheat or lie to the inspector. Once the trust is broken, it is nearly impossible to get it back. Always be straightforward and honest if you can. If not, then at least try and not directly lie. If the inspector asks you if the sign is far enough from the next sign down, say “I think so” not “yes it is”. Be like a politician and never box yourself in with your lies (like Bush’s “read my lips: no new taxes”). You want the inspector to believe in you so fully, over time, that they will approve your applications without even inspecting them. I have even gotten away with murder, occasionally, where the inspector will let me build a sign a little too tall or big, as they trust me not to get them in trouble, or to admit that they knew what I did.

Write Great Applications

Sure, you never did your homework in high school, but this is the real world and that habit won’t cut it any longer. You sign applications need to be perfect, with every blank filled in and all the engineering and other submissions attached. And they should be typed. If the inspector can’t read your writing, then they will not be in a good frame of mind when judging your work. And often, if the forms are filled out properly, you may get your permit smoothly, even if there should have been a question or two on it. The biggest mistake you can make is to leave a key section blank, hoping that the inspector will fill it in. For example, you’re too lazy to measure the distance to the sign down the street, so you guess or put in an approximate distance. Now the inspector has to measure it, and they will not be very happy with you, and may come up one foot short, accidentally of course, of the distance you needed to get your permit.

Don’t Be Afraid To Get Tough If You Are Mistreated

If you have followed all of these steps, and are still not getting what you want at City Hall and, in fact, are being mistreated, don’t be afraid to stop being nice and get tough. Some city inspectors are impossible to work with, and will lie and cheat you constantly. In those occasions, and if the stakes are high enough, call in a respected real estate lawyer to work with the city for you. I have had several situations where I was being not treated fairly, and I did just that. And, in all cases, I won. Normally, the abusive inspector will crack almost immediately if you call in an attorney. I had one occasion at the city of Dallas where the city was so afraid I would sue the city over some illegal treatment, that they granted me a variance to build a sign that was slightly too near another one on a separate application. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied.

Remember the guy who dated the inspectors? He dated one that took one of my applications, denied it, whited out my name, wrote in her boyfriend’s name, and approved it. I found the evidence at city hall records. Everyone told me to let it go, that it could only cause ill will. But I took it to the head of the department and caused real problems. I never got that permit back, but I had no problem in the future, as the inspector was afraid of me. And the guy who was dating her? Well, they broke up and I don’t think he ever got another permit.

Remember the Roman strategy “you can get what you want by having people either love you or fear you”. That’s a pretty good strategy at City Hall.



You need to put as much effort into your relationship at city hall as you do with your banker and your spouse. Often, this relationship will make all the difference in getting what you want when things are in a “grey” area. And having a good relationship with city hall makes the whole permit process a much more pleasant experience.

Frank Rolfe started his billboard company off of his coffee table, immediately after graduating from college. Although he had no formal training on the industry, he learned as he went, and developed his own unique systems to accomplish things, such as renting advertising space. Frank was formerly the largest private owner of billboards in Dallas/Ft. Worth, as well as a major player in the Los Angeles market.