Urban Politics #12: Who is a Lobbyist?

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


Who is a lobbyist?

Two UP rreaders, Bruce Miller and Dick Nelson, responded to the last UP on the proposed ordinance establishing filing requirements for city hall lobbyists. They pointed out that it exempts “persons who receive no compensation for lobbying” and who lobby “on their own behalf”, so it would seem to not include regular citizens.

The ordinance defines “lobbyist” as “any person who lobbies either in his or her own or another’s behalf.” However the above exemption that they point to does exist. The problem is in interpreting “on their own behalf”. Many citizens contact city staff and elected officials in behalf of their community council, church, or local neighborhood group. This proposed ordinance would seem to make them subject to filing reporting forms. For instance, there is usually a space on a sign-in sheet at public hearings to designate any group that an individual may be associated with. Often groups will have more than one person or someone other than the president speaking on their behalf. Then there is the problem of persons “who receive no compensation for lobbying” and who lobby “on their own behalf” but may own a downtown department store, or a baseball team, and are lobbying for legislation effecting their own investments. Oddly enough it seems that they may be exempt, which obviously is not the intent of the legislation.

Dick Nelson who participated in drafting the ordinance, writes: “it is intended to provide the public with useful information on those who seek to influence our Municipal officials, and the currently mostly invisible process of lobbying. Yes, that would include leaders of community groups as well as paid lobbyists. But it also would include another Important category.

As we know, there are a number of people in the City’s business and professional community who “volunteer” their time in various efforts to convince City elected officials of the wisdom of a particular project or action. They are not paid to lobby, but are allowed by their employers to be involved in the civic dialogue and debate on company time. In some cases, they are the company’s CEO. None of these people, who in my opinion play a significant role in both setting and enacting the City’s governmental agenda, are now required to disclose the extent of their activities.

My belief is that an ordinance that has any chance of providing meaningful information must apply to these people as well as to those (relatively few) who are compensated for their lobbying efforts. To do this, all volunteer lobbyists must be treated equally. One last point. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I think that if a paid lobbyist had to report while a non-paid didn’t, there could well be grounds for an equal protection challenge. This would especially be the case if the unpaid lobbyist was independently wealthy or an employee whose employer was very generous in granting a compensated leave of absence.”

I shared Dick Nelson’s piece with Brian Livingston, Administrator for the Civic Foundation, and his personal response follows: “I believe Dick Nelson is wrong in his belief that the lobbyist disclosure ordinance would not require individuals to record their contacts with city officials. Let’s say “Person A” wrote 11 letters as an individual. Person A then wrote one letter on behalf of the board of an organization. Person A is now considered a lobbyist and must report the names, positions advocated, and Council Bill numbers related to the first 11 letters. If Person A did not keep records on every letter sent, he or she would be unable to file an accurate report and would be subject to a fine up to several thousand dollars per year. This absurd result arises from trying to regulate unpaid individuals (volunteers) as though they are paid agents (lobbyists), which they are not.

Mr. Nelson claims that so-called “unpaid lobbyists” must be required report if any “paid lobbyists” must report, or there would be an equal protection challenge. In reality, volunteer time is legally treated much differently than paid time. For example, under Washington law, you may contribute volunteer time to any political candidate – and contribute as much time as you want – and it is not a financial contribution and is not required to be reported.

A primary purpose of public disclosure laws – and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission itself – is to protect average citizens from the undue influence of wealth on the democratic process. When these principles are used instead to place restrictions on ordinary volunteers, the concept of protecting the public interest from special interests is distorted. There is a legitimate concern that groups like the Seattle Commons, which spent over $900,000 in one election, were not required to disclose their contributors. This concern can be satisfied, however, not by subjecting volunteers to regulations, but by defining as lobbyists those persons who influence legislation and are paid more than $1,000 per quarter. This would catch the Seattle Commons and all similar special-interest groups, which cannot exist without paid agents.”

Overall, I believe the ordinance as written would be a bureaucratic nightmare and lead to a justified greater antagonism towards an intrusive government. Livingston’s suggestion on raising the payment limit to a $1,000 a quarter may be a step in the right direction. Clearly a better written ordinance is needed that provides information to the public on who the paid lobbyists are and what they are lobbying for. What is not needed is another hurdle to overcome for individuals and community groups trying to participate in our city’s governance.

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Comment from adult orthodontics
Time September 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm

You can definitely see your expertise in the work you
write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

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