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Council OKs amendments to lobbying ordinance on first read

Thursday, October 27, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

City Council is one step away from amending the city’s Anti-Lobbying Ordinance to make competitive processes for social service funding exempt from the law. However, several Council members remain unconvinced those changes will do enough to silence the complaints that arose during the recent social service contract bidding process.

If last Tuesday’s Council work session is any indication, there are several issues Council members will want to clarify before signing off on staff’s recommendations to amend the ordinance. Most of those issues have to do with determining just who is and who isn’t allowed to lobby Council on behalf of any particular group looking to do business with the city.

Council Member Laura Morrison, who also sits on the Public Health and Human Services Committee and saw the controversy over the Anti-Lobbying Ordinance firsthand, said she is worried that even with the new clarifications, “there are still going to be times… where we have nonprofit organizations that are going to be doing business with the city, and somebody who might be a member but not a board member, or just a supporter of that organization, do they fall under this ordinance or not? “

Sabine Romero with the city’s Law Department replied that determinations about who is a “respondent” or “agent” would still have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

“There is still a fact assessment to be made at each turn about whether or not a member of an organization is a responder for purposes of our no-contact period,” said Romero. “So whereas staff is limited in the scope of what it knows about a person making a communication to Council, we do our best with the information we have, and to the extent that complaints bring forward more information … it’s really a fact-specific discussion.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo expressed concern that such an interpretation of the law will leave the city open to the same kinds of complaints from confused citizens as before. As an example, she asked Romero if a member of a nonprofit who is not a board member or paid advocate but who receives a call to action from that nonprofit to contact Council would be considered a respondent.

“Our code says a respondent or anyone they ask to advocate on their behalf is subject to our no-contact period,” said Romero. That would include a supporter of a nonprofit who contacted a Council member in response to a mass email request from that group.

Tovo said staff and Council need to make those definitions clearer so that groups don’t find themselves shut out of the process due to the carelessness of an otherwise well-meaning supporter who happens not to understand the law.

“Groups should be aware of that,” said Tovo. “I don’t think people would consider themselves a respondent if they get a blast email from an organization they belong to and then follow up with an email to Council. My guess is that happens a lot.”

Despite these worries, Council voted 6-0 (with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole out of the country) last Thursday to approve the amendments on first reading and to send the resolution to the Ethics Review Commission. This past Monday, the Commission signed off on amendments to the ordinance, clearing the way for Council to turn those amendments into law, probably next week. According to commission Chair James Henson, the group approved of the amendments and made a few “relatively non-substantive suggestions” for Council to consider, “mainly in the nature of edits and language adjustments.”

If Council approves the new provisions, opportunities to compete for social service funding, cultural arts funding, block grant funding, and the sale of rental property would not be covered by the ordinance unless Council directs otherwise.

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