CITY HALL — The City Council stood by the Big Blue Bus administration Tuesday night in rejecting a bid by Mayor Richard Bloom to allow a nonprofit that raises money for AIDS research and education to advertise on local buses.
Instead, council members asked staff to see if there was anything to be done about the policy, which permits commercial companies like British Petroleum to advertise their products and services but prohibits nonprofits like Santa Monica’s own Heal the Bay from doing so.
The distinction came to light in August when Ed King, director of Transit Services for City Hall, issued a council item saying that the nonprofit AIDS Project Los Angeles would no longer be able to run ads concerning the event AIDS Walk Los Angeles because they contravened a policy against noncommercial speech that has been in place since 2001.
That means that the nonprofit, which organizers say helps fund one of the largest food pantries and oral health programs in the region for people with HIV and AIDS, could not promote one of its largest events on Santa Monica buses because the purpose of the walk is to raise money for a nonprofit.
City Hall only allows commercial speech and city events to be advertised on buses, the reasoning being that if one nonprofit advertises on the bus then any nonprofit can, whether City Hall likes its message or not.
That would mean AIDS Project Los Angeles could advertise, but so could a nonprofit against gay marriage, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.
“The city can certainly adopt a policy and effectuate a policy of allowing any nonprofit to advertise on the buses. That would be completely lawful,” Moutrie said. “What the city can’t do lawfully is pick and choose.”
The announcement drew criticism from the AIDS Project and Craig Miller, the founder and producer of AIDS Walk Los Angeles and 29-year resident of Santa Monica.
AIDS Project Los Angeles has taken out advertisements on the municipal buses for the event AIDS Walk Los Angeles for the past six years, Miller said.
“This has been a central component of our campaign to reach out to and inform the public,” Miller said before the Tuesday meeting.
He rejected the notion that city officials who are not elected could make such a decision without any level of public process and, two weeks before the meeting, met with Bloom to ensure that the matter would get some air.
AIDS Project Los Angeles also ran full-page advertisements in the Daily Press prior to the meeting that said “Don’t let Santa Monica City Hall throw your community’s values under the Big Blue Bus!”
The ads also depicted a clipboard that had a list of advertisements that it suggested could run on public buses — violent video games, jumbo-sized soft drinks and oil companies — alongside another list of ads that would be ineligible, including anti-bullying campaigns, child obesity warnings and messages to keep the Santa Monica Bay clean.
Speakers Tuesday night questioned the City Council on how one could be allowed, but not the other.
“I understand trying to avoid controversy, but you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Phil Curtis, director of government affairs with AIDS Project Los Angeles, told the council Tuesday.
City Councilmember Kevin McKeown took issue with the ad in the paper, and said that the real problem was that throwing open the doors to advertising to the nonprofit would lead to any number of things showing up on the sides of what he called “the rolling ambassador of Santa Monica.”
One such example raised at the meeting involved an ad taken out on buses in San Francisco by the American Freedom Defense Initiative that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
San Francisco is now exploring ways to prohibit noncommercial speech in an attempt to prevent future inflammatory ads like that one from being displayed on city buses, Moutrie said.
Given the uncertainty involved, council members chose to support the first portion of Bloom’s request — that staff look at the policy to find any kind of flexibility and support back — but not the proposal to allow the AIDS Walk ads to continue in the interim.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis, Councilmember Terry O’Day and Bloom voted in favor of changing the policy to allow noncommercial speech at least until staff returned with its recommendation, but the remaining council members shot them down.
“I voted no because I strongly feel that there would be tremendous legal risk in voting yes, and although I would like to see (AIDS Project Los Angeles) ads and Heal the Bay ads, what can happen in these cases is you can lose control,” said Councilmember Bobby Shriver.