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Pool proposes changes to rules for lobbyists

Wednesday, August 26, 2015 by Jo Clifton

If City Council Member Leslie Pool and her cadre of ethics reformers have their way, any number of people who are currently working to persuade city officials to take action, or not, will have to register under a revised city lobby ordinance. And there may be a shakeup at city commissions as well.

At a news conference Tuesday, Pool and ethics attorney Fred Lewis outlined specific changes they would like to see in the city’s outdated lobbying ordinance. Lewis helped Pool draft the resolution, which outlines specific guidelines for disclosure and proposes increasing the registration fee from $300 to $350 a year for those who earn at least $2,000 per quarter seeking specific decisions from public officials. Lobbyists working for nonprofits would be able to register for $50, but they would be required to register.

Currently, only those who lobby a certain set of city officials – including Council, their staff and department heads, or commissioners – must register as lobbyists. And there are many other loopholes in the current regulations. For example, a person can say that any lobbying he or she does is merely “incidental” and claim an exemption from the ordinance.

Lewis said that one of the most important changes to the law would be eliminating the term “incidental employment.” He explained, “If you’re working for an employer, and you’re paid to lobby as part of your job, you don’t currently have to register. … Basically the state doesn’t allow you to say it’s just incidental, so you don’t register. For example, if you were an engineer, and you get paid … and 48 percent of your time you spend down at City Hall … is that lobbying?

“It was really clear that our law hadn’t been overhauled in about 40 years. … There were a lot of inefficiencies,” Lewis said.

Self-employed consumer advocate Paul Robbins has been a strong advocate for stricter enforcement of the current lobby registration law. He said he was pleased to hear that Pool’s resolution would specifically cover lobbyists for nonprofits.

As for the registration fee, Robbins said, “I basically think they shouldn’t have to pay anything, but they should have to register and reveal their funding sources. They shouldn’t be on a board or commission that they have to interface with their job. Some of these nonprofit representatives are treating the boards and commissions they sit on as their branch office.”

Robbins added, “There are some people who lobby for nonprofits, and they don’t throw their weight around. It is really a shame to have to punish them because of some bad actors.”

The proposed revision is based on the state’s lobby registration system but is less stringent, Lewis said. The proposal would require anyone lobbying any city official to be registered if the lobbyist is earning at least $2,000 per quarter and the action the official is being urged to take is discretionary.

Lewis told the Austin Monitor that he became interested in revising the city’s regulations after helping neighborhood leader Mary Ingle file a complaint against someone they both thought was an unregistered lobbyist. The Ethics Review Commission rejected Ingle’s complaint against Melissa Neslund, who was a Land Development Code Advisory Group member at the time. At the time, she is was a senior associate with the Austin-based engineering and design company Bury and is currently a member of the Board of Adjustment.

There are currently 70 registered lobbyists according to the city’s website, and those lobbyists have reported having 820 clients.

Pool and Lewis say they are not attempting to address a separate ordinance that prohibits lobbyists from sitting on city commissions.

However, Pool acknowledges that there are some people now sitting on commissions who would be required to register as lobbyists under the new ordinance. “Lobbyists have a fiduciary duty to influence outcomes so that their clients benefit financially to the greatest extent possible. Their serving on commissions that impact city decisions can be a real conflict of interest.

“Our volunteer commissions are created for people who generously give their time to help serve the community as a whole. The commissions serve an important purpose, and we cannot compromise this process or have an appearance of impropriety. I intend the resolution and subsequent ordinance to clarify any prohibitions and include how to address lobbyists who may currently be serving,” Pool told the Monitor.

The Council Audit and Finance Committee will look at the resolution at this morning’s meeting and consider whether to forward it to the Ethics Review Commission for comments, which seems likely. Pool said she expects the commission will look at it and provide feedback at the next Audit and Finance Committee meeting at the end of September. After that, she expects the resolution to be on the Council agenda in early October.

This post has been corrected to reflect the fact the Melissa Neslund has since moved on to work with Sackman Enterprises.

AustinTXCityHall” by WhisperToMeOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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