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Lobby ordinance needs revision to cover virtual meetings

Wednesday, May 4, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City auditors have found that, while the city’s registered lobbyists are largely complying with city regulations, there is one significant gap in the reporting requirements. Although lobbyists are required to report their in-person meetings, no such requirement exists for virtual meetings, according to a report discussed at last week’s City Council Audit & Finance Committee meeting.

Andrew Scoggin, the senior auditor who made the presentation, told the committee his office reached out to three departments and nine Council offices, trying to determine whether the city has an overall strategy for tracking virtual meetings with lobbyists. They concluded there was none. Some offices use an electronic form while others use the electronic calendars to keep up with virtual lobbyist meetings, but nothing in city code requires either the lobbyist or the person being lobbied to keep a record.

Scoggin said both Dallas and San Antonio require reporting of virtual meetings. Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said Council Member Leslie Pool, who did not attend the meeting, was working on a revision to the ordinance that would include reporting virtual meetings. (Pool brought forward the last lobbyist registration ordinance.)

According to the report, auditors randomly sampled 11 percent of 115 lobby registrants and assessed their compliance for registration filings in 2021 as well as quarterly activity reports for July and October 2021 and January 2022. Only 97 lobbyists were registered as of May 3. City Auditor Corrie Stokes told the Austin Monitor that the number of lobbyists fluctuates quite a bit throughout the year, which accounts for the drop in number.

Auditors reported that 12 of the 13 registrants’ filings looked at were compliant with the city’s legal requirements. However, one lobbyist, who was not named, “was assessed three $50 late fees, but should been assessed five late fees for their July 2021 report. Staff in the City Clerk’s office said they ran into multiple technical issues while implementing” the new electronic filing system. They told auditors technical issues resulted in the office being unable to assess the correct number of late fees.

The clerk’s office had not encountered the same issue in subsequent reporting periods. Auditors concluded that the new e-filing system “appears to provide added assurance that lobbyists comply with requirements, although late fees are issued manually.” City clerk staff told auditors they would continue applying late fees manually to avoid any technical issues.

The final issue was what to do about people who are lobbying but have not registered with the city and paid their fees. Stokes said that anyone who becomes aware of unregistered lobbying may file a complaint with her office. The auditor’s office maintains a hotline for complaints, which generally address fraud, waste and abuse. However, she said auditors can also handle complaints about unregistered lobbyists.

Council Member Kathie Tovo approved of that idea, adding, “If members of the public or members of Council are aware of individuals who are not registered, we can send those individuals’ names on to you.”

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