Editor’s Note: This is an open letter to Santa Monica City Council regarding the proposed Lobbying Ordinance set to be discussed this Tuesday, July 14, as City Council Agenda Item 7-A.
Dear City Council,
As a matter of good governance and transparency, SMCLC strongly supports Santa Monica enacting a much-needed ordinance requiring the registration and timely reporting of paid lobbyists. It is critical that residents are informed about exactly who is lobbying, who is being lobbied, and how much time is being spent lobbying to influence development decisions in Santa Monica. Our city is experiencing increasing development pressure that generates an extraordinary amount of undisclosed lobbying activities.
Unfortunately, as drafted, the ordinance inexplicably proposes to exclude a key paid lobbying class altogether — the in-house lobbyists. These would include owners and employees of the developer entity itself, such as a partner, vice-president or project manager, as contrasted with hired outsiders, such as a law or PR firm, which is the only class currently included in the proposed ordinance.
In-house lobbyists are a frequent, regular and virtually embedded presence at City Hall, seeking to influence their particular development projects. These key developer owners/employees consume copious amounts of city staff time including the city’s top and mid-level management personnel as well as the time of the City Council and other city bodies. Excluding them would fatally undermine this ordinance and frustrate the essential goal of accurate, transparent lobbying information that is the very reason to enact a lobbying ordinance.
Summary: The good news is that just a few changes will make the coverage of this ordinance an accurate record of the level of paid lobbying on specific projects, and enable residents proper access to this critical information. These changes are as follows:
(1) Include paid in-house lobbyists who conduct much of the lobbying in our city;
(2) Include mid-level staff who are lobbied and who significantly impact staff recommendations and decisions; and
(3) Require that lobbying disclosures be given before a key vote by any city government body on a matter, not filed well after important decisions are made.
- There Is No Reason to Exclude In-House Lobbyists — They Must Be Included. Much of the lobbying that occurs in Santa Monica is carried out by highly paid, skilled professionals, who, because they work in-house for developers or are the owners of the developer entity, would be entirely excluded under the proposed ordinance.
While the staff report acknowledges that other cities include “in-house lobbyists,” staff recommends excluding them altogether in Santa Monica “because it seems advisable to start with a simpler system and learn from the experience before expansion.” But where “simplicity” would yield a skewed and much worse system, resulting in a highly inaccurate picture of the true level of lobbying activity in our city, it is no virtue. Transparency, not simplicity, is the fundamental goal that needs to be credibly met so that residents have confidence in the information being reported.
The in-house provision also should not exclude those persons who are paid by nonprofits when the nonprofit is acting as a developer seeking discretionary development approvals or amendments of existing development approvals or agreements.
- The Definition of “City Official” Must Include Planners and Procurement Officials Below Department Heads as They Also Significantly Influence Important Decisions. The failure to include these officials under the ordinance ignores another key reality of paid lobbying in Santa Monica — the lobbying of mid-level staff by developers and contractors. Important development, procurement and contract decisions are made or significantly influenced by recommendations of staff below the department head level. Yet lobbying of these individuals is excluded from the proposed ordinance. They should be included.
- Lobbyists Should Be Required to File a Report Prior to Any Matter Being Heard by a City Body or Decided Administratively by Staff.
As drafted, such disclosures would likely be filed well after the matter is heard and decisions are final. This untimely reporting makes the information much less useful to residents and the Council, and the decision process far less transparent.
Even the Planning Commission’s beneficial practice of mentioning contacts at hearings — something the Council may want to adopt separately — is made at the last minute from the dais and does not include the prior, paid lobbying of staff or other bodies. Lobbyists should have the duty to publicly — and in a timely manner — disclose the complete picture of their paid lobbying activity.
Additionally, the ordinance should be clarified to ensure that the name(s) of the City Official(s) contacted is included in the reports lobbyists must file. See, Proposed Section 4.85.050 “Quarterly Reports of Lobbying Activities,” D(2), second sentence. Lastly, to effect the changes discussed in this letter, the proposed definitions would need to be modified accordingly and exemptions (e) and (f) also would need to be revised.