I am passing along a proposal we are offering that would dramatically improve the disclosure of lobbying activities at City Hall. Given all the scandals that have been uncovered in recent years it is clear that the city must act decisively to achieve a more open and transparent government. More information on the proposal is below.
TO: Chair and Members of the Ethics Commission
FROM: Carl DeMaio
RE: Proposal to Require Council Disclosure of Lobbying Efforts
For the past year the Ethics Commission has considered various ways to enhance transparency in the City of San Diego by strengthening lobbying disclosure requirements. The Commission should be applauded for tackling this important issue. It is perhaps one of the most important roles the Commission can play on behalf of taxpayers.
The citizens of San Diego have little trust in their city government-and rightfully so. The last few years have seen the most egregious examples of misconduct by our local elected officials. In too many cases, our elected leaders have put special interests before the public interest. A handful of influential "insiders" have a disproportionate amount of access to and sway over our leaders. The need for real reforms to curb the influence of special interests at City Hall has never been greater.
The only way to provide a check and balance to the special interests is to achieve full transparency in government-creating an open process whereby efforts by any one interest to influence the process would be fully disclosed to the public. With full transparency, the public can then form its own opinion on whether their elected leaders are unduly influenced by one special interest or another. More importantly, the public can respond to whatever information or arguments are provided to our elected leaders behind closed doors in an effort to sway their votes.
While full disclosure is necessary, we must be very careful not to create a chilling effect on free speech or limit the public's access to their government. Open government is not only about transparency in the process, but participation by the public in the process.
The public should be very concerned that the current proposal being considered by the Ethics Commission would have a chilling effect on free speech and could actually deter public participation in the process. The requirements as constructed would lead to a huge bureaucracy inside and outside of government. In fact, to process all of the paperwork, more city staff would have to be hired at a time when the city needs to be reducing the size of its workforce to address its financial crisis.
An added concern is the potential for abuse of the requirements by elected officials and their cronies to conduct witch hunts on any organization or individual that they may disagree with. The standards as proposed are exceedingly unclear as to what defines a lobbyist. Under the proposed rules, would Diann Shipione be required to register as a lobbyist to blow the whistle on the pension mess? Would Phil Thalheimer be required to register as a lobbyist in his fight to save the Mt. Soledad Cross? Would I be required to register as a lobbyist to watchdog the City on their financial practices and advocate for government reform?
Put simply, I shudder at the concept of a day when only registered lobbyists can petition their government for redress. Fortunately, there is a better way to provide the public with full disclosure.
I am here today to ask that the Ethics Commission forward to the City Council an alternative disclosure solution modeled after the disclosure guidelines currently used by the California Coastal Commission. The idea is not new (Mel Shapiro and others have suggested the Commission study the idea), but has been dismissed by the Commission as not applicable to lobbying disclosure.
The Coastal Commission disclosure approach is simple: it requires that the politicians themselves be held accountable for disclosing who has provided input to them on a matter before the Commission. This disclosure occurs BEFORE a vote is cast on an issue, and is entered fully into the public record and is available to the public on the day a vote is cast on a particular issue. (Attachment A provides a template used by the Commission for disclosure.)
While the Coastal Commission guidelines apply to "ex-parte communications" in a quasi-judicial setting, they can just as easily be applied to regulate and disclose efforts by special interests to lobby our elected leaders on a variety of issues. In a memo submitted to the Commission, Ethics Commission Program Manager Stephen Ross, "At present time the City of San Diego has not adopted a formal policy, procedure or law governing the disclosure of ex-parte communications in quasi-judicial matters. Many other jurisdictions in the state and the rest of the country, have done so, however, in a variety of ways." Ross concludes his memo noting "the creation of such a law or policy seems appropriate." (See Attachment B)
The Coastal Commission guidelines can be modified to reflect the more expansive nature of public decisions made by our elected leaders outside of the strictly quasi-judicial decisions made by the Coastal Commission. Moreover, the definition of who constitutes an "interested party" on a matter before City Council can also be refined to allow for regular constituent feedback. Some of these suggested modifications are outlined in a memo provided to the Commission on June 8, 2006 by Executive Director Stacey Fulhurst. (See Attachment C)
As you review these documents, I ask that you consider several factors in favor of using the Coastal Commission approach to regulating lobbying activities:
Every individual has the right to petition their government. Those petitions, however, should be a matter of public record. In fact, the public wants to know that their elected leaders have heard BOTH sides of an issue before voting. Meeting with various interested parties before a vote (as well as listening to public testimony during a public hearing) is the duty of an elected official.
Some argue that the Coastal Commission guidelines have never been adopted as part of a lobbying disclosure process. Yet, there is no argument that the adoption of the Coastal Commission guidelines would bring a significant degree of transparency to city government. In fact, some argue that adopting the Coastal Commission guidelines in a municipal government would go farther than any other jurisdiction in applying disclosure standards on elected leaders. That would be a welcome change, and achieving the maximum level of government transparency would make San Diego a model for the nation in open government.
I respectfully ask that the Commission vote to refer the Coastal Commission approach to the City Council as an alternative or at least a compliment to the package being considered today.