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Pool offers changes to lobby ordinance

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 by Jo Clifton

When City Council Member Leslie Pool first proposed tightening up the city’s lobby registration ordinance last year, she encountered considerable resistance, especially from architects and engineers who said that the work they do when they talk to city officials is not lobbying. And, since a number of those people sit on city boards and commissions, labeling them as lobbyists would have caused considerable conflict, since lobbyists are not allowed to serve on commissions.

Pool’s revised proposal, which she termed a “clarification,” will likely seem like a major improvement for those land-use professionals who expressed concern last August.

Pool explained the changes to her colleagues at Tuesday’s work session. About 99 percent of the work that those professionals do pertains to technical code issues, including issues involving plumbing and electrical work, she said. Working on such technical issues is not lobbying, she said.

Last August, Hank Smith, who serves on the city’s Environmental Commission, told the Austin Monitor, “I’ve been doing engineering in Austin for 33 years, and I’ve never considered myself a lobbyist. But I do have conversations with staff members about cases and projects that are under review. That’s the best way to make the city more efficient,” he said.

If those conversations were considered to be lobbying, Smith continued, “By definition, we would all become lobbyists.”

On Tuesday, Smith told the Monitor that he had not read the proposed new ordinance but that “it sounds like what we were asking for.”

Additionally, the new ordinance requires registration only for lobbyists who earn at least $2,000 in compensation during a quarter and work at least 26 hours on lobbying during that quarter. The current ordinance requires a person to register if he or she earns just $200 a quarter, with no hourly requirements.

The lobbyist must be seeking a discretionary, appealable decision from staff for the action to be considered lobbying. However, lobbying does not include testifying at a public hearing or meeting or providing information, nor does it include service on a city commission, according to the new rules.

The new ordinance also would eliminate the term “incidental lobbying,” a phrase included in current city regulations. Pool and the attorneys working to help her amend the ordinance have described the term as too vague to enforce. The term does not appear in state law.

Austin’s current regulation includes only seeking to influence Council, the city manager and department heads. However, many lobbyists spend most of their time trying to influence other members of city staff, such as midlevel management.

The new regulation would include lobbying of all city employees, with the exception of clerical staff. Pool says her proposal puts city law in line with state law.

If the ordinance passes as Pool is proposing, lobbyists will also have to report their compensation within ranges, which is not required under current law.

Pool is also seeking to do away with Austin’s antiquated reporting system, which is done on paper. The new law will require electronic filing of lobby reports, making it similar to the state system, which has required electronic filing for the past 10 years.

Staff estimates the cost of new personnel, office space, technology and software to be about $350,000. It is not requesting any funding for the current fiscal year. According to city documents, the funding will be considered as part of the Fiscal Year 2016-17 budget process.

The ordinance is set for Council consideration on Thursday’s agenda.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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