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Providence Could Become First RI City to Regulate Lobbyists

Friday, February 04, 2011

 

Providence could become the first community in Rhode Island to require lobbyists to register at city hall—sparking concerns among some City Council members that the proposed new rules could have the unintended consequence of shutting out community groups and nonprofits.

Supporters of a proposed ordinance on lobbyists—including Council President Michael Solomon and Finance Chairman John Igliozzi—say the reform would boost accountability and transparency in city government.

At the state level, lobbyists are required to register with the Secretary of State. But no other city or town has similar requirements, according to the Providence City Clerk’s office.

The current draft of the Providence ordinance would require anyone who is lobbying council members, the mayor, and other city officials—and being paid for that lobbying—to register with the City Clerk. The lobbyists would have to pay a registration fee, likely hundreds of dollars, and file annual reports on their lobbying activities. They could also face hefty fines for not complying with the rules.

Could affect community groups

As currently written, the ordinance has only a few exceptions: elected officials, journalists, individuals who are representing themselves, and representatives of any organizations that are seeking a federal Community Development Block Grant for less than $25,000.

Councilwoman Sabina Matos worries the current draft could impact community groups in her ward. “I think under the current draft it’s not clear whether there is protection for small community groups to have access to their council person,” Matos, D-Ward 15, told GoLocalProv.

“I represent neighborhoods that have neighborhood associations that are struggling to pay their staff,” Matos added. “They don’t have the resources to pay for a lobbyist and have a lobbyist registered.”

Councilman Kevin Jackson, D-Ward 3, expressed a similar concern. In an interview he wondered how the new ordinance would affect individuals who advocate for changes on issues like overnight parking. “Does that mean they would have to register as a lobbyist?” Jackson said. “I think that would be ridiculous and foolish.”

Who counts as a lobbyist?

He contrasted that with the lobbying that goes on in the Statehouse. “To me there is a clear distinction as to what goes on in the Statehouse—these are people that are hired by companies to pass legislation to get things done that are going to benefit their industry,” Jackson said.

At a meeting of the Finance Committee last night, Igliozzi (pictured left) said the ordinance would be revised to reflect those concerns. But it will be difficult to write in an exception for nonprofits that excludes small community-based groups, but includes other larger nonprofits. Igliozzi noted that both Blue Cross Blue Shield and Brown University are nonprofits.

“There’s lobbyists coming and going in city hall and throughout city government and … there’s no checks and balances on them,” Igliozzi said. “We’re looking to bring more light on that aspect of city government.” He said companies have a stake in millions of dollars of city spending on developments and other projects. He said the public deserves to know who is influencing the decision-making process on how that money is spent.

Providence to follow the example of Springfield, Mass?

Although other communities in Rhode Island haven’t done it, a number of larger cities across the country have robust lobbying ordinances in place, including Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. In New England, however, many of the other large cities do not have such ordinances, including Boston, New Bedford, Worcester, and Cambridge. The only city GoLocalProv was able to confirm as having lobbyist registration requirements was Springfield, Massachusetts.

In Providence, the ordinance has garnered early support from at least one good government advocate—Phil West, a former executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. Last night, he applauded the council for considering the new ordinance. “This has been needed in Providence for a long time,” West said. “I’m thrilled that you’ve done it.”

Nationwide, West said cities had been adopting ordinances on local lobbyists over the course of the past 20 years.

In Providence, the ordinance was first proposed in 2007—but somehow fell by the wayside, never making it past early consideration. Last night, Igliozzi said he was committed to moving forward with it this year.

If enacted, the Providence City Clerk would be responsible for maintaining lobbyist records and enforcing the ordinance.

City hall photo credit: Guillaume LaHaye

 

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