After two years spent deliberating over how lobbyists are governed, the city’s Ethics Commision has presented a new set of recommendations, some of which are still sparking outrage among nonprofit leaders.
The commission began examining the city’s ordinance in early 2022 to see how rules could be altered to improve transparency.
While the existing law was adopted in 2010, the city’s reliance on self-reporting and few resources dedicated to auditing has resulted in no one being charged under the law in roughly 14 years of its existence.
That could change if the new round of recommendations drafted by the Ethics Commission is approved by the City Council. The commission based its recommendations on numerous public meetings and survey results that it received last fall.
“The public deserves to know what the major influences are,” the commission wrote in a letter attached to its recommendations.
The recommendations, which will be discussed by the commission Wednesday, could bring sweeping changes to who have to report contacts with lobbyists and who is required to register as a lobbyist. It could also shed light on documents, presentations and other materials typically presented to city officials behind closed doors and are currently not required to be disclosed.
But the new rules could force some nonprofits to register their activities with city officials, something they were exempt from in the original law. That recommendation is being presented despite an uproar over a similar proposal released in March.
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James Suazo, the executive director of the nonprofit Long Beach Forward, which works with underserved communities on issues like housing, language access and even vaccination education during the COVID-19 pandemic, said he was disappointed with the recommendations.
Suazo and dozens of other leaders of nonprofits turned out last year to denounce the March proposal, which would have required nonprofits, neighborhood groups and other organizations (who were once exempt) to register as lobbyists for “advocacy” work.
The commission drafted eight recommendations to the city’s lobbying ordinance and some would narrow the exemption for nonprofits. Nonprofits that have an operating revenue of less than $1 million annually would remain exempt, but those who have larger annual budgets would have to register as lobbyists in the future if they contact city officials enough times or about certain issues.
Suazo and others say that this could lead to a chilling effect.
Nonprofit leaders say they should remain exempt since they are already required to file reports with the federal government to maintain their tax status. A new local law could require them to dedicate more resources to filing reports with the city, something nonprofit leaders say they don’t have the payroll or the resources to comply with.
A person’s desire to remain anonymous when advocating for something like immigration reform could also prompt nonprofits to avoid engagement with city officials altogether.
“Not one of these concerns have been looked at or factored into these recommendations,” Suazo said.
Often the city relies on nonprofits to help engage communities that have been historically hard to reach. For example, nonprofits like Long Beach Forward have been outsourced to rezone Central Long Beach and to do outreach for the efforts like vaccine education and the census count.
The commission’s letter says the proposal “seeks to balance the public support for transparency with the intention to avoid excess burden on members of the public or public officials.”
Its recommendations include “non-lobbying advocacy,” which is defined as “influencing or attempting to influence any action or decision-making.”
Advocacy would be required to be disclosed for four categories including land-use and zoning, housing, the city’s budget and tax proposals.
“Disclosure of non-lobbying advocacy would allow the public to see more clearly the interests and considerations that influence City decision-making on issues of importance to the community,” the letter said.
Under the propsoal, city leaders would also be required to disclose their monthly calendars so the public can see who they are meeting with and when.
Another recommendation would expand what needs to be disclosed by lobbyists, including a specific description of what is being discussed when they meet with city officials, the lobbyist’s position on the issue and copies of materials provided to city officials during those meetings.
The proposed changes also call for funding to pay for audits of the city’s lobbyist activity and reports and the potential for administrative fines to be used as penalties in place of prosecution, which is one of the current penalty people who violate the law could face.
If the commission approves the drafted recommendations they will be forwarded to the City Council for consideration. The council will have the final authority to approve the recommendations and could alter what the commission sends it to vote on.
A full list of the proposed changes can be found here. The Ethics Commission is scheduled to meet Feb. 14 at 3 p.m. inside the Billie Jean King Main Library Downtown.