City Council debates level of transparency in lobbying act

The Boston City Council held a hearing on Friday, April 28, to discuss Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s re-filing of the proposed Home Rule Petition, An Act to Regulate Lobbying Activities Before the City of Boston.

The home rule petition looks into the interest of increasing government transparency and accountability.  This was the second hearing on this matter. The first one took place January 17, 2017.

The petition will work toward creating greater access and information concerning efforts by third parties seeking to influence discretionary decision making at all levels of the municipal government. This petition will cover both executive and legislative lobbying.

At the hearing, questions soon arose on whether or not this draft is what would work best for the City of Boston.

Once a year, lobbyists send a letter to the City of Boston’s Clerk Office that states what projects they are working on.

Maureen Feeney, Boston’s City Clerk, said that only about once or twice a year, a person from the media might come and take a look at the folder. In addition, there is no way to go after lobbyists for the fine if they fail to pay the filing fee.

“We’ve never received a dollar because we have no authority,” said Feeney. “We do not have the wherewithal right now to enforce it. We might have to get an attorney or someone who might be able to address that.”

She continued, “But we can definitely keep up with all the filing, gathering it and then putting it up on a Web application so that everybody can view it.”

In its current form, the home rule petition is modeled after existing lobbying regulations at the state-level.

Sam Tyler, the president of the Boston Research Bureau, said that what applies to state law may not apply to what is happening in the city. He said that the type of lobbying that takes place at the city level versus the state level is quite different.

This bill also goes beyond the state’s framework by covering communications not only with elected officials but also with all city employees at all levels of municipal government.

Tyler noted that, to extend the law beyond elected officials, seems excessive. He said it would add a lot of bureaucracy and responsibilities that go beyond what the City Clerk can be asked to do.

“This is not ready for primetime as a piece of legislation,” said Tyler who added that he likes the idea of creating a working session to look into this complicated piece of legislation. “I think it is clear a lot more work needs to be done before you move forward with it.”

Mayor Walsh in his letter to the Boston City Council stated that this petition recognizes the need for balancing open and transparent government while also encouraging innovative entrepreneurs to continue to bring new ideas and new technologies into the city government.

To do so, this petition allows for the ability to waive certain registration fees, while maintaining registration and reporting requirements for certain entities and small operations such as technology-based startup companies and nonprofit organizations.

Neighborhood groups and residents would not have to register as lobbying entities, unless there is a clear indication through time and money spent, that such a group operates as a lobbying organization.

City Councilor Mark Ciommo voiced concerns about what the total cost of implementing this home rule petition would be. Currently there is no cost estimate.

City Councilor Frank Baker also voiced concerns about the cost and how it would benefit the City.

“I mean you will get some filing fees and fines,” said Lou Rizzo, who worked as an attorney behind the scenes for the Massachusetts State House for 25 years. “But it’s going to cost you—if you are going to do this right, you’re going to need to bring in some lawyers who know a lot about this.”

City Councilor Tito Jackson voiced that he would like to see legislation passed to create more transparency and accountability.

“I think we, as a council, and for the interest of our work, we should have a clear understanding of the individuals we are encountering,” said Jackson. “If someone asks for coffee, I would like to know if there is a fee at the back-end of that coffee.”

He continued, “I want to know if I’m being lobbied or if it is just a concerned citizen pulling my ear.”

City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who is the chair of the Committee of Government Operations, brought up the idea of changing this from a home rule petition to an ordinance.

There are some state services that come along with the home rule petition such as the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State, but making it an ordinance would keep the power within the city’s Clerk Office and Law Department.

“The benefit to the ordinance is that we construct the legislation and we don’t have to send it to the State House. That could take three years until it is addressed,” said Feeney. “When you get an ordinance, the city has the ability to implement it and has the power to see how it works, the ups and downs. The city has the ability to work that out.”

Feeney added that the rest of the state doesn’t have the same issues that Boston has.

“It is extraordinarily complicated and detailed, and it’s going to take a long time to figure out what is going to be best for Boston,” said Tyler.

This matter has remained with the Committee of Government and Operations, and to date, no further action has been taken by the Boston City Council.

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