Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

Lobbyists will eventually have to register with City Hall, but exactly who is a lobbyist, what lobbying is and who is responsible for reporting violations remain unclear.

The City Councilheard a first draft of a lobbying ordinance at their July 14 meeting and while councilmembers praised the concept of the proposed law, there were significant questions about its scope, enforcement and fundamental purpose.

As proposed on Tuesday, lobbying would be defined as attempting to influence a city official with regard to action by the city and a “lobbyist” would be defined as someone receiving compensation for that work in excess of $1,000. A lobbyist would have to register with the city, disclose their activities and pay a registration fee. Criminal or civil penalties were part of the original ordinance; and while some specific activities were prohibited, a separate list of actions was specifically exempt from the rules.

From the beginning of the conversation, council debated the definition of lobbyist.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich began by arguing for a much broader definition “because in my view, everybody that comes in front of us and is asking for something is, in essence, a lobbyist,” she said.

Himmelrich said she wouldn’t require everyone to register, only those who were paid specifically to lobby. She also expressed a desire for the lobbying rules to be incorporated into a larger ethics ordinance that covered more than just lobbying.

Several councilmembers expressed concern that allowing civil penalties for violations of the rule could create an unexpectedly hostile environment for local activists.

“I have some concerns, that you know, nemeses as they were, would just use this as an excuse to badger each other if they don’t like the other person’s activities and there will be nuisance lawsuits that won’t amount to anything of substance in terms of transparency,” said Councilman Ted Winterer.

Councilman Terry O’Day said the rules needs to protect individuals who make honest mistakes.

“One of the bad outcomes that could happen here is someone is unwittingly caught up in a trap they didn’t anticipate. … People who are well intended but didn’t understand the law, didn’t consider that it applied to them or despite the reassurances that any of us might offer, found later that someone else determined, perhaps a court, that it did apply to them,” he said.

Mayor Kevin McKeown acknowledged the public’s request for this kind of ordinance and said the council agreed something should be done, but summarized the council’s dilemma.

“How wide do we set the net and how do we determine who is lobbying? I would caution us that it’s very difficult to write legislation where things are based on intent, I rarely know what I’m thinking, let alone what someone else is thinking,” he said. “Also if we overreach we may underachieve, if we try to watch everyone the result may be in effect we watch no one because you can’t keep an eye on that many people and what they are doing.”

Councilman Tony Vazquez asked if the rules should incorporate significant disclosure requirements for city staff, in addition to the self-reporting, as staff members might find themselves subject to communication in the course of their day-to-day jobs.

New City Manager Rick Cole, presiding over his first Santa Monica council meeting, asked the council to consider the impact of a complex rule on city staff.

“I want to raise a concern about the legal imposition on staff below department heads,” he said. “I do believe there are ways in which we can address that, we are working on a code of ethics, we can handle that in a way that means some of your concerns about transparency and minimizes the opportunity for undue or in any way influencing decisions by lobbying people below any threshold but I just want to be careful about putting line staff in a place where they’ve got to read a 40-page ordinance to figure out what their obligations are.”

Councilwoman Gleam Davis made the final motion requesting that staff redraft the rules with specific guidance to create a registration statue for contract and in house lobbying, add rules regarding the disclosure of contact between elected officials and any activist, explore reporting requirements for different staff levels and eliminate civil penalties.

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...

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