In 2009, the city’s then-development services director received a discounted stay in Napa, courtesy of a lobbyist working on behalf of a developer who was hoping to build a hotel in Downtown Long Beach.
The city official was demoted over what then-City Manager Pat West called a “public trust issue,” and in the months that followed, elected leaders swiftly passed the city’s first ordinance setting rules for lobbying, defined as the attempt to influence city policies and decisions.
But now, with a new Ethics Commission empowered by a recent charter amendment, those rules may soon be strengthened—and among the biggest proponents of these changes is the lobbyist who was at the center of that hotel scandal a dozen years ago.
“At the end of the day, it should be a level playing field,” said Mike Murchison, one of a few dozen registered lobbyists in Long Beach who says everyone does not play by the same rules. “It should be 100% transparency, and here in Long Beach, it is not a level playing field.”
Critics including Murchison say it is not fair that the law passed in 2010 does not require city employee labor groups or nonprofits to register with the city and make their interactions with decision-makers public.
He singled out some nonprofits like Legal Aid Foundation Los Angeles, which is often on opposing sides of rental policy disputes. Some of Murchison’s clients are landlords, while the foundation represents people who are fighting evictions, placing them at odds for the past few years while the council debated how best to keep people housed during the pandemic.
Angela Turner, a managing attorney at Legal Aid Foundation, said her organization’s role is to stand up for vulnerable populations whose voices may not be heard, and to try and show policymakers the effects of the legislation they vote on.
“It’s critical for our advocates to be able to amplify the stories and the things that we’re seeing on the ground as the front-line law firm representing low-income communities for LA County,” Turner said.
Los Angeles has a requirement that nonprofits report their efforts under its lobbying law—and the Internal Revenue Service requires nonprofits to identify expenditures related to lobbying on tax filings.
Turner said that Legal Aid has not eclipsed a 30-hour per quarter threshold that would require them to register in LA. If the rule were changed in Long Beach, the nonprofit would be concerned, but would comply despite impacts to its already heavy workload, Turner said.
“It could present some challenges,” she said of the staffing that might be required to file lobbying reports. “Our staff does an incredible job but there is more work than there are advocates.”
Many agree the difference between “advocacy” and “lobbying” is a very gray area, and that the rules need more clarification and enforcement teeth.
Is the law being enforced?
In the 12 years since Long Beach adopted its local law, no one has been charged with violating it, possibly due to the city’s dependence on self-reporting and omissions drawn into the law.
Lobbyists, whether they’re hired to represent specific firms or lobby on behalf of a corporation in the city, are required to file semi-annual reports with the City Clerk to disclose who they represented, which city officials they talked to and what they talked about.
The lobby firm with the most business in Long Beach is Englander Knabe & Allen, which represents the interests of companies including BNSF, Gulfstream, Clear Channel communications and the 2nd + PCH shopping center. From July to December alone, city filings show the firm represented more than 50 clients, lobbying city staff, members of the City Council, the mayor and members of various commissions.
Matt Knabe, a lobbyist with the firm, said he would follow whatever rules the city put in place because that’s part of his job, but noted that some people exempted from the current law, like union presidents, are very powerful and do lobby city decision-makers.
However, Knabe pointed to LA, which has a stronger ordinance than Long Beach but has also been riddled with allegations that lobbyists are buying influence inside City Hall.
“If someone is going to go out of their way to give someone a bag of money, they’re going to do it,” Knabe said.
There are different thresholds for lobbyists that trigger when they must report their activity to the city. A “contract lobbyist” has to report their activities if they’re paid at least $3,200 during a quarter to lobby in the city. A business owner or their employees or officers must report if they lobby for more than 50 hours during a quarter.
An “expenditure lobbyist,” someone who conducts public relations or advertising campaigns with the intent of directing others to contact City Council members to influence legislation, must register after they’ve spent $5,000 in a year.
While violating the ordinance is punishable as a misdemeanor that could lead to a six-month jail sentence, monetary fines, and a temporary ban from working in the city as a lobbyist, the city relies solely on self-reporting from lobbyists and does not collect data from city officials’ calendars to see if all lobbying activity is being reported.
Powerful city employee unions, neighborhood associations, representatives of business improvement districts and nonprofits do not have to file their activities.
Violations are hard to prove
Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert, who took office the same year the lobbyist ordinance was approved, said that a violation of its rules is something that would have been brought to his attention and he can’t recall a single case.
While having a criminal conviction tied to lobbying might make it hard to retain or attract future clients—they’d be barred from practice in the city for one year—proving that someone has violated the law is difficult.
Haubert said it’s easy to allege that someone broke the rules, but proof is hard to come by.
“You’d have to prove the amount of money, the amount of time, and that the act of lobbying was happening,” Haubert said. “It would be pretty hard to prove a violation.”
There is no enforcement mechanism on the City Clerk’s end, which is the office that receives and publishes the reports, but a 2020 audit of the city’s ethics program included some suggestions that could bolster the policy.
The audit said the Ethics Commission should recommend creating a local fine structure for city officials who fail to file their legally required forms that show if they’ve received gifts from lobbyists and others who work with the city.
It also suggested that city officials’ calendars, which visitors typically sign when meeting with them, be declared public documents. Those calendars could then be reviewed to verify whether lobbying activity is being accurately reported.
There is broad support for the recommendations in the audit from city officials and the Ethics Commission, but the implementation could be determined by the number of city resources that are made available, said Susan Wise, chair of the Ethics Commission.
City Attorney Charlie Parkin agreed that the ordinance has never really had the teeth it needed to allow the public to see “how the sausage is made,” but questioned whether making officials’ calendars public would really solve anything.
“I think you’re going to see people change how they calendar,” Parkin said, explaining that people could easily leave certain meetings off of their calendar.
Parkin and others said they think most people are trying to follow the rules, and making it more strict could end up making it more difficult for the people who are not breaking the law.
Is a stricter ordinance the answer?
John Edmond, a former chief of staff for Councilman Dee Andrews who now runs his own lobbying firm, said that some of the cities with the most restrictive lobbying rules are the ones that have the biggest issues.
Edmond referenced Los Angeles and the one council member serving a prison sentence and another under investigation for alleged pay-to-play schemes that unfolded at LA City Hall.
Edmond is unique in having been both lobbied as a city employee and working as a lobbyist. He also represents clients like the Apartment Association California Southern Cities, which does not have to register its activities because it’s a nonprofit and therefore exempt.
He acknowledged that some groups may have more access to decision-makers through private meetings, and making it more transparent by including all groups in lobbying reports could be a start.
However, the public needs to be able to participate more in policy, meaning that important issues would be sent to council committees before being presented to the City Council for approval on a given Tuesday night.
“I think that if you had more opportunities to be part of the process, whether you’re a paid advocate or not, that is where I would see people having a little bit more faith in how the government is working,” Edmond said. “Then you know the decision hasn’t already been made.”
The Ethics Commission is just getting started with possible changes to the city’s lobbying law, but could only recommend changes to the City Council about who should and shouldn’t have to register their activity.
Wise said there is no set timeline for when it could make a recommendation, but it expects to get monthly updates from a sub-committee working on the issue. She said the commission in general is committed to making a difference in how the things in the city get done.
“I think the whole city will be a lot better in terms of what the product it produces, provided if everyone starts looking at what they’re doing and thinking through an ethical lens,” Wise said.