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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 | “Open government” and “transparency” have become the buzzwords at City Hall in recent months. The last few years have seen decidedly egregious examples of misconduct by our local elected officials. In too many cases, these leaders put special interests before the public interest. A handful of influential “insiders” have a disproportionate amount of access to and sway over our leaders. The need for real reforms to curb the influence of special interests at City Hall has never been greater.
The only way to provide a real check and balance to the special interests is to create an open process whereby efforts by any one interest to influence the process would be fully disclosed to the public. With complete transparency, the public would be better informed as to outside influences on their elected leaders and could respond accordingly to information or arguments provided to our elected leaders behind closed doors in an effort to sway their votes.
Unfortunately, there is a big difference between talking about open government and actually enacting real reforms to achieve an open and transparent government. A perfect example of this can be found in the so-called “lobbying reform” proposal being considered by the City Council this week.
The proposal seeks to “tighten” the definition of who falls under the term “lobbyist.” Yet it the proposal continues to exempt a whole list of special interests, such as labor union leaders, political party officials, think tank experts and individual campaign donors. In fact, it leaves out the very individuals who are credited with pushing through the notorious pension underfunding deals.
Instead of providing the public with more transparency, the proposal would create a bureaucratic mess – generating a mountain paperwork that would overwhelm rather than inform the public. In fact, if the public were interested in who lobbied the council on a particular docket item they would be required to sift through a mountain of data and forms in the City Clerk’s office piecing together each and every contract…for each and every interest…for each and every councilmember. What’s worse, under current rules, individuals could lobby the council and wait until after the council votes on an issue to disclose their lobbying efforts. Put simply, the current proposal provides no real transparency – and perhaps that was the intention.
If we are to have a true open government and enhanced transparency, we cannot simply tweak the old system that so clearly failed, as the proposal does. Instead, we have to break the mold and re-think how the public monitors the lobbying activities going on at City Hall. In order to do this, one need look no further than to the disclosure guidelines currently used by the California Coastal Commission.
There are several benefits that the public will gain by using the Coastal Commission model for regulating lobbying activities at City Hall:
- Accountability: Rather than place the burden on the public to sift through tons of paper before a council meeting, we should hold the politicians accountable to disclose who lobbies them. By placing the burden on the politician, it is likely to produce better judgment regarding who they meet with and for what purpose. Moreover, the penalty for non-disclosure of lobbying efforts should rest squarely with our elected leaders.
- Transparency: The Coastal Commission disclosure approach requires that the politicians themselves be held accountable for disclosing who has provided input to them on a matter before the commission. This disclosure occurs before a vote is cast on an issue, is entered fully into the public record and is available to the public on the day a vote is cast on a particular issue. The public would also be able to see whether their elected leaders have heard both sides of an issue before voting.
- Precedent: Just as candidates have the burden of reporting who gives them political contributions, why not have the same standard for lobbying activities? By having two different standards for disclosure between campaign contributions and lobbying activities, what politicians are saying is: “If you give me money, I’ll take the burden of reporting it. If you petition me for redress, you need to take the burden for reporting that.”
- Prevent Abuse: The city’s proposal would have a chilling effect on free speech by creating a confusing definition of who constitutes a “lobbyist.” If a politician disagreed with a member of the public who stepped forward and expressed an idea on an issue before the city, the regulations being considered in the city’s proposal could be used in a “witch hunt” to intimidate and silence critics. Under the proposed rules, would Diann Shipione be required to register as a lobbyist to blow the whistle on the pension mess? Would Phil Thalheimer be required to register as a lobbyist in his fight to save the Mount Soledad Cross? Open government is not only about transparency in the process, but participation by the public in the process.
Instead of adopting the proposal generated by the city’s bureaucracy, the City Council should adopt a two-part package for lobbying reform that strengthens enforcement of existing lobbyist registration rules and adopts the Coastal Commission guidelines with some modification for the disclosure of lobbying activities.
Some argue that adopting the Coastal Commission guidelines in a municipal government would go farther than any other jurisdiction in applying disclosure standards on elected leaders. That would be a welcome change, and achieving the maximum level of government transparency would make San Diego a model for the nation in open government.