Ethics Commission To Hold Three Meetings Starting Next Week (September 7, 9, 13) To Gather More Input On Revision Of Municipal Lobbying Ordinance — Please Come To Comment!

City Hall is always being built and rebuilt, and we might as well lend a hand. Never forget that the stone that the builder rejected is become the head of the corner!
Maybe you recall that the Policy Staff of the City Ethics Commission is in the process of proposing revisions to the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance. The proposals were discussed at length at the Commission’s August 15 meeting and, after a bunch of self-serving and mostly mendacious public commentary from a bunch of lobbyists, the Commissioners basically, disgracefully, took the position that even though the staff had been seeking input on the proposals for 18 months, the lobbyists needed even more time to weigh in.

So in furtherance of this ridiculous but nevertheless not-to-be-ignored directive from the Commission, the Policy staff, led by the heroic and long-suffering Arman Tarzi, has scheduled three so-called interested persons meetings to gather even more input. If you were at the meeting you’ll have noticed that mostly only lobbyists commented.1 The Policy staff sent out an email tonight announcing these meetings, and here they are, along with instructions for attending:

  • Thursday, September 7, 2017. 1:30pm – 3:30pm. City Hall, Room 1060 — This meeting is for a general discussion of the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance.
  • Saturday, September 9, 2017. 9:25am – 12:00pm. (Precise time & room TBD) — This meeting is also for a general discussion of the MLO. It is being held as part of the Congress of Neighborhood Councils and it is necessary to register for it separately.
  • Wednesday, September 13, 2017. 10:00am – 12:00pm. City Hall, Room 1070. — This meeting is to focus on input from the nonprofit community.

The Policy staff request that you RSVP for any of these meetings you plan to attend at ethics.policy@lacity.org. If you can’t attend a meeting you can also email your comments to the same address.

I hope to attend the first two, and I really hope that you and/or your friends can too. These revisions of the MLO are essential for improving government transparency and accountability in the City of Los Angeles, and if we let the lobbyists obstruct or eviscerate them, we’ll all be the worse for it. Turn the page for some links to and brief discussions of some of the essential issues.

And here are some of the important issues at stake:

A change to a definition of lobbyist based on pay rather than on time worked — You can also read my detailed discussion of this issue but for short, right now in order to have to register as a lobbyist, one must be paid for 30 hours over three consecutive months. The proposal is to change this to earning $5,000 in one calendar year. The proposed criterion would be much easier to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Most cities in the US do things this way. The lobbyists are opposed to it.

Detailed reporting of contacts with City officials — You can also read my detailed discussion of this issue. For short, right now lobbying firms are only required to disclose their actions in the most empty terms possible. For instance they might say they lobbied “City Council” about “DTLA.” The proposal would require them to report every contact by name and title of City official. They would also have to describe the issues they’re lobbying on and what position they take. Lobbyists really freaking hate this. They literally claim it would drive them out of business.

But not only is it crucial for government transparency, so that journalists and citizens can effectively track the activities of lobbyists, but it’s actually the norm in other California cities. Just for instance look at this disclosure from San Francisco. It lists all contacts and lobbyists up north certainly aren’t being driven out of business. I really recommend browsing San Francisco’s lobbyist directory to see how disclosure ought to be done.2 We can have that here if we speak up for it.

More rapid reporting requirement — I haven’t yet written a detailed discussion of this, but it’s essential. Right now lobbyists file disclosure forms quarterly, due on the last day of the month after the quarter. So e.g. they report January through March by April 30, and so on. The proposal is to change this to bimonthly reporting with reports due 10 days after the end of the period. The lobbyists really hate this and also claim that the burden would be too onerous. However, many cities in California have similar requirements, and their lobbyists seem to be doing just fine:

Shorter disclosure periods are not novel. Among cities, New York and Denver have bimonthly reporting periods, San Francisco requires reporting every month, and San Jose requires weekly reporting. In addition, the state of New York has a bi-monthly reporting period, and 14 other states (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Rhode Island, Texas) have monthly reporting periods.

So if you go to one of the meetings and you hear the lobbyists whining about this, remember that lobbyists in other cities comparable to this one are subject to even more stringent reporting requirements.

This more rapid reporting requirement would increase transparency and allow for more effective political opposition to lobbying. If one knows quickly and in detail who’s being lobbied and about what, it may be possible to organize effective opposition. The way things are now much municipal legislation is already lobbied for and voted on before the disclosures are even due.

For instance, consider the case of the Skid Row Neighborhood Council. The mega-lobbying firm Liner LLP started lobbying against the SRNC in February 2017. If we’d had this proposal in place then they’d have had to disclose this by March 10, which would have allowed the SRNC formation committee almost a month before the disastrous April 6 election to counter the egregious lies spread by Liner’s lobbyists.

Unregistered lobbyists — The lobbyists who commented at the August 15 meeting almost universally brought up the fact that there are hundreds of unregistered lobbyists working in Los Angeles. Somehow they created a false dichotomy between updating the MLO and getting these law-flouters to register. Many of the Commissioners, most notably Serena Obenstein, who seems never to have heard a public comment from a lobbyist that she didn’t want to adopt into policy immediately, fell for this especially hard.

It will be important at these meetings or through email comments to counter this false narrative. The way to get more lobbyists to register is to have simple laws and rapid effective enforcement. What we have now, with the 30 hours over three months, is next to impossible to prove violations of. The $5,000 requirement is supremely easy to understand and to enforce. In order to get unregistered lobbyists to register these proposed revisions are in fact necessary.

So that’s the story. There are a bunch of other proposals, and you can read all of them in the full report by CEC Policy staff. So if you can attend one or more of these meetings, please do so and also RSVP to ethics.policy@lacity.org. You can send written comments to the same address whether or not you can attend and comment in person.

  1. If you weren’t at the meeting I recorded the whole MLO part, and you can watch it here: Part One and also Part Two.
  2. They even require lobbyists to submit photographs of themselves for identification purposes! That would be so useful! I can think of multiple cases where lobbyists attended various meetings unannounced and only accidentally identified. How wonderful to have a photographic directory!
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