Ethics for Local Lobbying

Local governments do not have much guidance about how or when to regulate lobbying or lobbyists, according to City Ethics Inc.’s Director of Research, Robert Wechsler, in his book The Regulation of Local Lobbying (2016).

“Most local governments do not have lobbying oversight programs, lobbying codes, or even provisions that relate specially to lobbyists,” he says. “Nor do many states have municipal lobbying codes. The major reason for this is that most local government officials and local government associations take the position that there are not many local lobbyists and, therefore, no need for a lobbying code.”

Not so, says Wechsler. There is plenty of local lobbying, but typically it is not done by professional lobbyists who are trying to influence policy decisions on behalf of corporate and institutional clients. Instead, local lobbying is done more often by local business people and local companies or other organizations, or their lawyers. They are often seeking to influence decisions about procurement decisions, grants, land use, subsidies, and licenses, rather than policy issues.

An effective lobbying code for local governments, he says, starts with the assumption that everyone who seeks to influence their local government is engaging in a lobbying activity, even a citizen speaking out on a public policy issue at a council meeting or trying to get the assessment on his or her house lowered. These activities should not be exceptions from the definition of “lobbying activities.” Instead, they should be exceptions from the requirement to register as a lobbyist.

As discussed thoroughly in the book, an effective code will contain a statement of policy and will address:

Definitions: Determine who must register as a lobbyist and what activities a lobbyist must disclose.

Registration and disclosure: Enable local officials and the public to know who is seeking to influence local government decisions.

Prohibitions and obligations: Define and control ethical misconduct with regard to such issues as gifts, campaign contributions, business transactions, the “revolving door”, and more.

Indirectness or “grassroots” lobbying: Address such things as influencing others to influence local decisions, making indirect gifts and contributions, lobbying officials who lack authority with respect to a matter, but who can influence those who do, etc.

Oversight: Ensure the lobbying code is enforced, ideally by an independent commission, office, or position.

Enforcement: Identify fines and other sanctions for various violations, and identify mitigating and aggravating circumstances

Local governments that need to develop a lobbying code will find a useful model (City Ethics’ Model Lobbying Code) in appendix I of the book. They will also find mention throughout the book of how a lobbying code intersects with or complements a local government ethics code, with links to the City Ethics Model Ethics Code.

Writing a code is a necessary first step. But, just as with an ethics code, for a lobbying code to be effective, all parties need to be aware of it, educated about it, and held accountable to it. But that is a topic for another day.

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Wechsler, Robert. The Regulation of Local Lobbying, City Ethics Inc., 2016.