Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 | The Ethics Commission is scheduled to make a presentation Wednesday to the City Council Rules Committee on the subject of amending the City’s Lobbying Ordinance. These amendments are designed to create greater transparency in the lobbying process and to remedy existing enforcement problems. In particular, the proposed reforms are designed to ensure that those who are paid to influence government decisions register as lobbyists and disclose the following information to the public:

  • The identity of their clients
  • The compensation earned for lobbying
  • The names and departments of city officials lobbied
  • Campaign contributions
  • Campaign fundraising efforts

During the past 12 months, the commission has conducted a top-to-bottom review of the 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 petition their government and making sure the public is aware of which lobbyists are talking to public officials and what factors may contribute to their influence. We believe the current proposal strikes this careful balance. It is also important to note that the commission’s proposal will bring San Diego into line with disclosure requirements that have been in place in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as other jurisdictions for years.

Throughout the review, the commission heard comments and suggestions from the public, including lobbyists. We agreed with many of these suggestions and incorporated them into the proposal. Perhaps not surprisingly, the commission nevertheless heard a variety of objections to our final proposal (mostly from lobbyists), including the following:

  • Asking lobbyists to disclose the compensation they receive and/or the number of contacts they have with city officials would constitute an invasion of privacy
  • It is too burdensome to disclose the names of specific officials that they lobby
  • Volunteers who influence decisions should also register as lobbyists
  • Lobbyists will stop making campaign contributions
  • Fundraising should be disclosed only if the lobbyists personally deliver contributions.

The cornerstone of any effective lobbying ordinance is ensuring that the public is made aware of the actions of those who seek to influence government decisions behind the scenes. Although the commission is certain that some lobbyists would prefer to keep their lobbying activities private, public scrutiny is expected and appropriate. Similarly, the commission concluded that the public has far more interest in knowing which specific city officials were lobbied, instead of just the name of the official’s department.

Because different city officials wield different levels of authority, the proposed disclosure requirement will not force the public to have to guess which of its public servants were actually lobbied.

On the subject of requiring unpaid persons to register as lobbyists, the commission determined that it is not possible or practical to regulate volunteer lobbyists without also regulating average citizens seeking to contact their elected representatives. The commission also rejected the notion that fundraising activities should only be disclosed if a lobbyist personally delivers a contribution to a candidate; doing so would allow lobbyists to easily circumvent the rule while still taking credit for raising funds.

The commission also received input from several parties who suggested that the Lobbying Ordinance be replaced with a new set of laws requiring city officials to disclose their “ex parte” contacts. In other words, rather than have lobbyists disclose their private meetings with city officials, city officials would have to disclose those private meetings. Proponents of this process point to the California Coastal Commission, which uses an ex parte communication rule that requires each commissioner to disclose who lobbied him/her on a particular issue prior to casting their vote. Although such a rule might, at first blush, seem like a simple way to ensure transparency in government, it is inherently flawed as a “lobbying ordinance.”

The commission devoted its June meeting to this issue, and ultimately concluded that it does not belong in, or as a replacement to, the Lobbying Ordinance. For example, the Coastal Commission model would not provide the public with the following information:

  • The names of non-elected city staff (approximately 1,000 city officials) contacted by lobbyists; in other words, the public would not know if the director of the city’s Planning Department was lobbied on a particular decision
  • Compensation received by lobbyists or number of contacts made by lobbyists; in other words, the public would not know the extent of the advocacy by a particular lobbyist or special interest group
  • Campaign contributions and fundraising activities by lobbyists.

In addition, the implementation of an ex parte disclosure rule would not limit gifts from lobbyists as the current proposal does. Put simply: an ex parte disclosure rule may have a place in city government, but it simply cannot take the place of a lobbying ordinance.

As mentioned above, throughout its deliberations on the Lobbying Ordinance, the commission repeatedly reiterated its view that there is nothing inherently evil about lobbying, and that it is a necessary and valuable component of the governmental process. That said, it is important that all aspects of lobbying be fully disclosed to the public to effectively combat the appearance of corruption and undue influence in local government; an appearance that has been enhanced by the recent prosecution of local and federal officials in connection with gifts and campaign fundraising by lobbyists.

Dorothy Leonard is chairwoman of the Ethics Commission and Gil Cabrera is the vice-chairman of the Ethics Commission.

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