Nonprofits, neighborhood groups push back against rule that would regulate them as lobbyists

As the Long Beach Ethics Commission readies its recommendations for changes to the city’s lobbying ordinance, community groups, nonprofits and others are apprehensive over what it could mean for the future of their ability to engage with city officials.

Long Beach’s lobbying rules were adopted in February 2010 in an attempt to offer transparency on who was getting paid to help shepherd their clients’ projects and permits through the city process by talking to city decision-makers.

The 13-year-old law has exempted nonprofits, neighborhood organizations and business improvement districts. But that could soon change, according to proposed amendments that could be sent to the City Council on Wednesday.

“All points of view should be subject to the sunlight of disclosure under the ordinance,” a draft proposal of the changes said.

Those groups have expressed concern about the paperwork required to comply with the city’s law, which could drive away members or even create a chilling effect for some groups who don’t want to risk running afoul of the law, which could lead to a misdemeanor charge in addition to fines and a temporary ban for those who break it.

Nonprofits say that they already file disclosures with the IRS, which is required to maintain their tax-exempt status, while neighborhood groups are worried that bringing up concerns over things like oval-shaped roundabouts, permanent parklets and other worries in their communities could require them to register as lobbyists.

“That’s just wrong. We shouldn’t have to pay to bring up issues,” said Corliss Lee, an East Long Beach resident who’s part of several community organizations.

Lee said she spent a year preparing a spreadsheet to show all the repairs that are needed at El Dorado Park, like trashcans with lids to keep wildlife out of the bins and concrete that’s pushed up along the walking paths that Lee said is a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”

The proposed changes to the law would expand when it applies by adding the word “advocacy” to the ordinance and specifying that those who spend 10 hours or more contacting city officials during a three-month period in person, by phone or through electronic means like email, are subject to it. It would include the time taken to prepare any communication, something that is not part of the current law but is being proposed for all groups of lobbyists.

It also calls for increased monitoring by the city to ensure compliance as well as added administrative fines and penalties for those that fail to properly register their lobbying or advocacy work.

Lee said that adding the burden of keeping track of hours and adding the fees required to register could “cripple” some neighborhood associations that operate with little to no budget. Other neighborhood leaders questioned if it would lead to a dip in membership, noting that people who volunteer want to support their communities, not fill out mandatory reports.

“It just seems to me that the whole thing is going against neighborhood participation,” Lee said.

Austin Metoyer, meanwhile, represents a different segment of organizations that could be subject to the new lobbying ordinance. Metoyer is the CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Long Beach Alliance, a business improvement district that provides services to Downtown businesses and residents.

Metoyer said his business improvement district is in constant communication with the city’s Health, Public Works and Police departments regarding cleanliness programs the DLBA administers, street improvements and ongoing concerns from residents and businesses about the growing homeless population.

“If you look at the communications that goes on, there’s like half a dozen emails on those projects weekly,” Metoyer said of contacts with city officials. “If all of that needs to be accounted for, it’s going to start piling up and piling up quickly and push us toward our threshold.”

The commission started its proposed revisions of the law early last year when Mike Murchison, a registered lobbyist in the city, called on it to revisit the exemption of nonprofits. Murchison, whose client roster includes local landlords, said that tenant rights groups and others have been operating on an unequal playing field when it comes to contacting city officials.

“They’ve had an advantage where they’ve been able to communicate with elected officials without having to disclose any of that,” he said.

Murchison said he’s supportive of the proposed changes, even though some of them would tighten reporting requirements for registered lobbyists and broaden the amount of information they need to disclose when they do meet with city officials.

One of the groups Murchison singled out, Long Beach Forward, is part of a coalition of community nonprofits that have signed onto a letter calling for the commission to keep the exemption in place.

“These organizations are often the only voice for marginalized and low-income communities,” the letter said. “Making such organizations jump over yet another hurdle, to register and report as local lobbyists, is likely to have a very chilling effect on their participation in public debate and collaboration.”

James Suazo, executive director of Long Beach Forward, said the proposed changes are unnecessary because nonprofits like his are already capped by federal law on how much of their resources they can dedicate to advocacy—about 20%—and they’re required to file those reports publicly.

Suazo distanced nonprofits’ advocacy from lobbying, saying their aim is to help underserved communities, while lobbyists do their work “solely to turn a profit.”

His group has partnered with the city to boost vaccine and testing efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic and is currently part of the city’s community outreach plan for a rezoning effort in Central Long Beach. His group and others are “trusted community partners” the city works with to engage with communities that are hard to reach.

While Suazo said nonprofits generally can “make magic happen” when it comes to be meeting the filing requirements that could be imposed by the changes, he said groups like his that are already short on resources could be required to divert their attention to administrative paperwork and away from their mission, which is helping the communities they advocate for.

“The right hand is doing things different than the left hand,” Suazo said of the city’s efforts to work with community groups who have the trust of marginalized residents and the commission’s proposals that he says could derail that.

The commission is expected to meet March 8 at the Civic Chambers, where it could vote to forward the recommendations to the City Council for final approval. The recommendations could change when the council considers them, if the body decides to discuss the recommendations in the future.

The council has a number of commission recommendations it hasn’t taken up, like a nine-month-old call for a ban on facial recognition technology from the city Equity and Human Relations Commission and a recommendation from the Ethics Commission for the council to censure two of its members, which the commission voted on in January.

The Long Beach Ethics Commission is scheduled to meet March 8 at 3 p.m. in the Civic Chambers, 411 W. Ocean Blvd. 

https://lbpost.com/news/ethics-commission-set-to-recommend-tougher-lobbying-rules

https://lbpost.com/news/city-looks-to-strengthen-rules-over-who-must-disclose-lobbying

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