Ethics Commission set to recommend tougher lobbying rules
The Long Beach Ethics Commission could propose dramatic changes to the city’s lobbying rules next month that would redefine who has to register their activities with the city, lower the threshold for when activity needs to be reported and require politicians and other officials to self-report contacts with people advocating for policies or projects.
Ethics Commissioners discussed the proposed changes last week and could formally refer them to the City Council for approval at their March 8 meeting.
One of the biggest changes would remove the exemption for nonprofits and neighborhood groups, who previously did not have to disclose their discussions with city officials. Another major change would be counting lobbyists’ preparation time toward the minimum threshold that triggers when they have to register with the City Clerk’s office.
The current law only requires lobbyists to log the time spent meeting with City Council members and other officials, not the time they took to prepare for the meetings or any reports they compiled.
Tweaks that could ultimately be recommended by the commission would make the city’s lobbying ordinance significantly stronger but would require additional funding for the City Clerk’s office to audit filings. Any changes would have to be approved by the City Council, which would be directly affected by many of the proposed recommendations.
New disclosure rules
The commission started down the path of recommending changes to the city’s lobbying ordinance in early 2022 when it sought to add clarity and transparency to a law that has not resulted in any kind of enforcement since being adopted in 2010.
Mike Murchison, a lobbyist who works in the city, asked the commission to consider removing the exemptions for nonprofits and unions, who generally don’t have to register as lobbyists, saying that Long Beach “did not have a level playing field” when it came to disclosing who is reporting their lobbying activity.
Murchison played a critical role in events that led to the formation of the 2010 law after he provided a discounted stay in Napa to a city development official while representing a client who sought to build a hotel in Downtown Long Beach. Following those events, the city crafted an ordinance that required lobbyists like Murchison to report their activities, but Murchison has complained about what he sees as loopholes in the law when it comes to other types of groups trying to influence city policy.
The proposal that commissioners could vote on March 8 would recommend adding the word “advocacy” to the law and requiring nonprofits, neighborhood organizations and business improvement district representatives to log their advocating activities with the City Clerk.
The new rules would apply to nonprofits with operating budgets of greater than $50,000 annually.
People who advocate, which is defined as “influencing or attempting to influence any action or decision making of the city without reference to a specific legislative or administrative action by the city,” would have to register after advocating for 10 hours or more in a three-month period or after three or more contacts with a city official within any one-month period.
Council members, the mayor and other city officials could also have to report their contacts with entities advocating or lobbying for projects or legislation.
Ethics Commission Chair Margot Morales pointed to the push by a local health care union last year to increase the minimum wage for its members as something that should have shown up on city lobbying reports but did not. The current ordinance exempts collective bargaining for city unions, but other non-city employee union activity must be reported. In this case, it wasn’t she said.
Commissioners said requiring city officials to document these meetings could provide a check against lobbyists and advocates who may not report their activity.
There still seem to be questions about what advocacy is and how the new law could capture it.
“With social media now, there’s a whole different route for people to take to influence what the decision-makers are doing,” said Morales. “And by putting something on social media, putting a link to YouTube, this person has taken it a step forward to try and build a coalition to influence. How do we capture some of those things?”
Lobbyists and advocates would also have to provide greater detail about what they discussed with public officials. Changes to the ordinance could require a specific description of what was discussed, the type of action they sought if a specific property was talked about and the names of people involved in the contact.
The disclosures could also be required monthly instead of quarterly. The commission pointed out that on multiple occasions the current quarterly filing system has resulted in disclosures being made after the City Council has voted on something.
New thresholds for lobbyists, advocates
Lobbyists were always subject to the city’s law, but how much work they can conduct before they have to register could get dramatically smaller, according to the draft proposal.
The compensation a lobbyist can receive before having to register with the city could drop from $3,200 for a three-month period to $1,000 for contract lobbyists. An old rule that allows business lobbyists to not register their activities if they spent less than 50 hours during a three-month period could also go away.
The proposed changes would drop thresholds for business lobbyists to three or more contacts during a given month or 10 hours or more during a three-month period. Expenditure lobbyists, who conduct public relations or advertise campaigns with the intention of directing others to influence legislation, could see their expense limit drop from $5,000 to $2,000 in a calendar year before they’d have to register.
Simultaneously lowering the reporting thresholds and requiring that time spent preparing for meetings with city officials could boost the number of people and organizations that must register as lobbyists with the city. Currently, there are just a few dozen registered.
The draft proposal also notes that requiring greater detail about preparation time could give the public a better idea of what is influencing decisions at City Hall. The commission had previously mentioned the possibility of requiring reports and presentations given to city leaders in private to be made public before any vote on a project or policy, but that does not appear to be in the proposed changes.
Audits and penalties
Proving a violation of the city’s lobbyist ordinance is difficult, and in the over 12 years since it was adopted, no one has been prosecuted for violating it.
City officials say it’s hard to prove that a violation has occurred because you’d have to prove that lobbying was happening and show a dollar amount or the amount of time that a person spent with city officials advocating for something to happen.
Requiring city officials to log their own contacts could help the city better track that kind of activity, and the commission is recommending that audits and new penalties be added to the ordinance, which currently treats violations as a misdemeanor that could result in a lobbyist being temporarily banned from working in the city.
The recommendations that are being considered by the commission could call for new positions in the City Clerk’s office to audit lobbyist disclosures and cross-reference them with the city officials’ disclosures.
It’s also set to recommend that other penalties be added, such as civil or administrative citations.
“Expanding the ordinance to include multiple enforcement remedies will provide the city more options to ensure compliance with its requirements,” the draft report said.
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