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Future of bus ads will be discussed by Town Council

The debate concerning which bus ads, if any, will be allowed on Chapel Hill Transit buses has been largely confined to the chambers of the Chapel Hill Town Council.

But the voices of UNC and Carrboro, which represent 70 percent of contributions to the Chapel Hill Transit system, will be added to the discussion tonight.

On Dec. 3, the Town Council will decide the future of the Chapel Hill Transit bus ad program, which was called into question in October upon the discovery that the town had been following the wrong ad policy.

An ad advocating for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel first sparked the discussion about the town’s ability to restrict political and religious ads.

The Town Council froze the bus ad program at its Oct. 24 meeting after realizing the ad went against the official policy adopted in June 2011 banning such ads.

Before the Chapel Hill Town Council makes a final decision, members want to hear from their transit partners, UNC and Carrboro, which share the costs of the Chapel Hill Transit system.

UNC annually contributes $7.08 million, or about 59 percent of total contributions to the system, while Chapel Hill pays $3.7 million, or about 31 percent.

“It’s important that everyone is included and respected in this conversation,” said Chapel Hill Town Council member Penny Rich. “It’s the town’s policy, but we want to get everyone’s opinions.”

But opinions on the future of the ad policy have varied, and reaching a consensus could be difficult.

Rich said she supported returning to the original policy from last June, banning political and religious ads.

“We did put a policy in place, it wasn’t adhered to, and I want to go back to it,” Rich said.

But on Nov. 13, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in favor of free speech on Chapel Hill Transit buses.

Alderman Lydia Lavelle said the board’s decision stemmed from its belief that the bus system is a public forum.

“I hope the town thoughtfully weighs the strong sentiments of our board,” Lavelle said. “It’s ultimately the council’s decision, but they need our input and UNC’s.”

UNC will be represented at tonight’s meeting by Carolyn Elfland, associate vice chancellor for campus services. Elfland could not be reached for comment Monday.

UNC students — who contribute to the system through student fees — have mixed feelings on the issue.

“I don’t think you should ban all political ads outright, but I definitely think that nothing discriminatory should be allowed,” said junior Elizabeth Whitfield.

“There’s a fine line between discriminatory and controversial.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said he looks forward to tonight’s discussion.

“Carrboro didn’t wait to hear from the partners — they went ahead and passed a resolution, which is interesting,” Kleinschmidt said.

“It’s important that all of the partners have slept on what the transit system is set up to do, and what an ad policy is set up to do.”

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