Sunshine Task Force Meeting #3 [Recap]

The Sunshine Task Force, an ad hoc committee formed by Mayor Mirisch to advance good government reforms, met for the third time this week, and on the agenda was a change to the city’s existing legislative advocate form. The objectives are to glean more information about lobbyists and their clients, and to make that information available online to the Council and the public at large. The broader goal: greater transparency in Beverly Hills city government.

John Mirisch made transparency his watchword at his installation as Mayor in March. He had called local government “the best form of democracy” but noted that it can also be “the most frustrating form of government” if it doesn’t listen to the public. “City hall forgets that the purpose of local government is to serve the residents, “ he said then. And his campaign slogan, “Putting the residents first,” put a fine point on transparency while suggesting an end the business-as-usual culture in Beverly Hills.

That’s a heavy lift! Open government and “active resident participation” are central the Mayor’s reform agenda, but today’s lobbyist registration form is an anachronism from an era of very limited disclosure and scant public involvement. It is a brief, one page paper form available for inspection at city hall but posted nowhere online. (So much for Beverly Hills “the smart city”!)

The proposed lobbyist disclosure reform would solicit more information from lobbyists – information like employer and issue client, of course, but also extensive organizational affiliations too – and make all of this available to the public via a searchable online database.

The theory is that if we recognize a paid or professional advocate working an issue (think land use variance, business subsidy or proposed regulation), then Council, will be better prepared by understanding the alignment of interests that would benefit from the city action. Such transparency is essential to legitimacy and trust, good government groups argue, and lobbyist disclosure reform is supported by Mayor Mirisch and Vice Mayor Lili Bosse and has been identified as a top priority by members of the Sunshine Task Force.

What’s on the Table?

Proposed changes to the lobbyist registration form would both expand the information required of the lobbyist and would create an online database of past and future lobbyists, associated firms, and individual lobbying actions. The proposed policy would require the lobbyist to disclose on a new form:

  • Individual lobbyist contact information
  • Lobbyist’s employer contact information
  • A summary of lobbying activity by the employer over the past three years, including the clients on behalf of which services were retained/performed
  • Client contact information, prior lobbying activities on behalf of that client, as well as the outcome(s) that the client is seeking
  • Organizations affiliated with the lobbyist and the nature of such relationships.

“Client” in the current working document is defined as:

any person who provides compensation to a lobbyist or lobbying firm or affiliated entity for the purpose of influencing a decision to be made by any governing body of the City of Beverly Hills, as well as any person, firm, corporation, partnership or other legal entity on whose behalf lobbying is performed by the lobbyist, affiliated organization or employer (collectively ‘Lobbyist’)

The Task Force members discussed the proposal. We agreed that a “penalty of perjury” oath important to retain but that incremental progress is better than no progress, so any effort to call out a lobbyist in chambers with a ‘badge’ would be ill-advised at this point.

The draft form proposes a 3-year (retrospective) window for disclosure. Of the lobbyist employer, for example, a “summary of each lobbying activity in which the lobbyist’s employer engaged in a matter involving the City of Beverly Hills during the last three years” would have to be disclosed. To some of us that seemed excessive. Vice Mayor Bosse suggested a 2-year disclosure window instead, reasoning that the city’s email retention policy is now two years; parity with standing public records policy makes intuitive sense.

As for the political feasibility of greater disclosure, the Task Force discussion focused on the (if you will) ‘mouth feel’ of a new disclosure questionnaire. How would a complicated form play with lobbyists and the councilmembers who will vote on it? We needed to capture enough information to begin building a lobbyist & lobbying database without making the online fillable form too formidable.

(We’d also like to see a plain-language description of ‘client’ so that some of the ambiguity about the nature of lobbying under this policy could be clear to non-professional issue advocates. The last Task Force meeting addressed that issue.)

With Task Force input, member Fred Fenster will re-draft the text; member Mark Elliot will mock-up an online form for review; and at the next meeting the entire Task Force will formalize a recommendation to Council.

The Task Force’s other identified priorities include:

  1. Lobbyist disclosure reform
  2. Staff reports that present pros and cons for objective Council review
  3. Posted Councilmembers’ city email addresses on the City’s website
  4. Independent analysis of all city contracts before approval
  5. Posting online of all official documents like land use plans, policy statements, agendas, minutes and the Council handbook

Today, neither our final Sustainable City Plan nor the City Council Policy and Operations Manual is posted online. (We’ve asked for that for years.) To this list we’d add that all plans should be available in the library in paper form too. Not even our General Plan, mandated by the state, is available there in hardcopy.

Why Extended Disclosure?

Why is lobbyist disclosure so important? We’re a small town, you see, where the networks of influence often operate beyond the literal corridors of power. The city’s old guard has long reserved power for themselves through handshakes, policy favors and, at election time, quid pro quo campaign support. It’s a system that keeps city hall open for business but keeps the metaphorical corridors of power largely closed to the public.

That’s where lobbying disclosure comes into play. Without sufficient scrutiny, the people’s business can yield to cozy arrangements of convenience. Property developers, business owners, their lawyer-lobbyists and elected councilmembers – the real Team Beverly Hills if you like – can all find common cause in supporting decisions that don’t necessarily benefit the public at large. These decisions were often taken with scant public awareness…hence the need for greater openness in city hall.

In making a recommendation to Council Sunshine, the Task Force has to balance the need for transparency against the burden of unnecessary disclosure. It’s also a tradeoff between the good governance reform ambition of the Mayor and the political feasibility of actually getting something through Council. “Politics is the art of the possible,” said Task Force member Marilyn Gallup, putting her finger on the challenge. “Let’s make it as palatable as possible.”

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