In case you haven’t been enthusiastically following the Ethics Commission’s legislative activities, for the past several months the commission has conducted a top to bottom review of the city’s Lobbying Ordinance. We have reviewed everything from the amount we charge lobbyists to register, to whether to regulate their fundraising activities, to the very definition of “lobbyist.” While we believe lobbyists serve an important democratic function, we also recognize they wield a great level of influence with government officials. As such, it is critical to strike the right balance between encouraging citizens to speak to their elected officials and making sure the public is aware of which lobbyists are talking to public officials and what factors may contribute to their influence.

A package of proposed changes should be ready for submission to the City Council Rules Committee in the near future. If these changes are ultimately approved by the City Council, a lobbyist hired by a client to lobby on the client’s behalf will be required to register as soon as the lobbyist becomes entitled to receive $1 or more from the client. In other words, unlike the current system which has a $2,625 per calendar quarter earning threshold before someone has to register as a lobbyists, all compensated professional lobbyists will have to register and disclose their activities to the public.

The most difficult issue the commission has grappled with is the regulation of “in-house” lobbyists whose lobbying efforts are on behalf of their employers. On one hand, we believe the public definitely wants to know when a high-level officer of a company has repeatedly attempted to influence a municipal decision, e.g., which developer should receive a city contract. On the other hand, we certainly don’t want to require an owner of a business to register as a lobbyist simply because he or she sends one letter to members of the City Council urging them to vote against the award of a contract to a particular developer.

After a great deal of discussion and consideration, the commission has decided to recommend a system based on a number of contacts. Under the proposed system, a business or organization would have to register as an “organization lobbyist” if its owners or employees lobby City Officials 10 or more times within a 60 day period. Although no system is perfect, we believe this is the best way to regulate those individuals who engage in substantial lobbying, while at the same time avoiding the inadvertent regulation of entities that have limited contact with City Officials.

Although the commission has spent almost an entire year discussing the lobbying laws, we have not received much input from members of the public (although we have heard quite a bit from lobbyists). So please, if you are interested in this issue, come to the next commission meeting on October 12 at 5 p.m. in the City Council Committee Room, or send us your comments by e-mail . Note that you can monitor all commission activities by checking out our monthly meeting agendas posted on our website.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this blog entry mistakenly listed the required earning threshold for lobbyists as $2,300. The correct amount is $2,625 per calendar quater earning.

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