Some question Danville ban on political ads on city-owned billboard

Some question Danville ban on political ads on city-owned billboard

DANVILLE - A proposed lease agreement for a billboard at a busy intersection in downtown Danville has some aldermen questioning the city's policy to restrict political advertising.

Alderman Bill Black, Ward 7, is questioning whether the policy creates free-speech issues. He said he does not want the city to be the determining factor in what can go on the billboard.

But Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said if those spaces were opened up to political ads for city candidates, it could be perceived that the mayor has unfair control over the advertising.

Black said he has run his own political ads for state representative at that billboard location — the side of a building on the southeast corner of the intersection of West Main Street and South Gilbert Street. Black said it's a popular billboard spot, because of the high traffic counts at that intersection. Black said he was surprised the Dan Pipkin Advertising Agency had agreed to that restriction in the proposed lease.

Earlier this year, the city became the new owner of the two billboards — the lease for the other billboard doesn't end until April — when it purchased the building they're attached to as part of long-term riverfront development plans along the Vermilion River.

According to the proposed one-year lease between Danville and Dan Pipkin Advertising Agency, the agency would pay the city $275 a month to lease the billboard which it would sell to advertising clients. But the agreement contains a paragraph prohibiting any advertising for alcohol, tobacco, political advertisements or "any firm or product that is distasteful or offensive." It also allows the lessor, the city, to approve any and all advertising or other use of the billboard.

David Wesner, the city's corporation counsel, said the language allowing the city to review all advertising content is also included in the contract with the vendor that sells advertising for the city buses. But, he said, that contract does not specifically restrict any political advertising as the proposed billboard lease does.

However, Eisenhauer said the city has generally had a policy that bus advertising spots be limited to political ads for county, state and federal office, but not city candidates to avoid any issues of political preference.

Wesner said he has concerns with political ads appearing on city-owned property and believes the law does allow the city to have some restrictions in that regard.

For example, he said, if there were several clients interested in the billboard space, including multiple political candidates, there could be a perception that city administration played a part in choosing who gets the spot.

In relation, Wesner said, there are no political campaign signs allowed in the public right of way within the city.

"We are not putting ourselves in the position of advocating for a certain candidate or party," he said.

Wesner, who has been doing legal research on the issue prior to the city council's next meeting, said it's also important to note that this restriction would be part of a contractual relationship with a lessee, not an ordinance that regulates something throughout the city.

"I believe there can be some restrictions in place. It's tough, because you're talking about a constitutional right of free speech," he said, "but it's not an unfettered right."

The proposed lease did not get a recommendation from the city council's public works committee earlier this week, with three aldermen voting yes and three voting no. Those who voted no were Black, Rick Strebing, Ward 2, and Mike Puhr, Ward 5.

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