Sunshine at City Hall (and the State House, and the Old Courthouse ...)

The public has a right to know what entities are lobbying the government to advance their interests on matters of policy and legislation, how much is being spent on those efforts, and who is doing the actual lobbying. And in 2018, “right to know” does not mean “a right to go to a government office building during normal business hours and search through a file cabinet.” It means being able to access the information in as close as possible to real time on the Internet.

For that reason, we applaud City Councilman Zeke Cohen’s effort to improve transparency around lobbying in Baltimore City. He has written legislation that would require lobbyists to report their activity quarterly (rather than annually); the city Ethics Commission to post those reports online within 30 days; and lobbyists to affirmatively identify their clients when approaching a city official. We find only two faults with it: The legislation does not go quite far enough, and (for obvious reasons) it would only affect City Hall. There’s a need for much better disclosure in this regard on the state level and in other local governments, too.

The Center for Public Integrity gave Maryland a D in its most recent ranking of state government accountability and transparency. That’s actually a pretty good score compared to other states — we rank 22nd — but not compared to what the public should have a right to expect. Its investigation found that the state has good policies in terms of when and how lobbyists are required to register and disclose compensation and expenditures but poor policies in terms of how it makes ethics information available to the public. That’s fairly typical of local governments here, too.

The state does publish twice-annual lists of lobbying activity that allow the public to view the information organized by the name of the lobbyist or the name of the entity paying for the lobbying. It also offers summary information about how much top lobbyists earn and how much large interest groups spend. But it falls short of providing the kind of information the public really needs to know.

For example, the activity report for the 2017 General Assembly session shows that the biggest spending interest group was API with nearly $1.5 million in expenditures. It doesn’t say what API is or what matters it lobbied on, but a check of another list shows API employed lobbyist Drew Cobbs of the Maryland Petroleum Council, a clue for those who don’t know that API is the American Petroleum Institute. That makes sense since one of the big issues of that session was whether Maryland should ban fracking. Another form shows Mr. Cobbs reported about $113,000 in lobbying fees during that period. Mr. Cobbs listed no other clients, and API listed no other lobbyists. So where did the remaining money go? It could be for all sorts of things, from travel to research, but the information online offers no clues. The Ethics Commission publishes aggregate information on the amount of money spent to entertain various committees and caucuses of the legislature but not any specifics on what entites paid for what.

And that’s better than what most local governments in Maryland provide.

Since 2016, Baltimore has posted lists of lobbyists, their clients and the general subject matters on which they lobby, but reports of expenditures are on paper in a city office. Baltimore County offers no online access to lobbying information at all. Anne Arundel County’s Ethics Commission publishes to the web annual reports listing aggregate amounts spent on lobbying but no specifics. Howard County, like Baltimore City, posts lists of lobbyists but not activity and expenditure reports. Montgomery County is probably the best of the lot in this regard; though its online database isn’t perfect, it does provide substantial detail about who pays how much and for what — expert witnesses, travel, lobbyist compensation, etc. That should be the baseline expectation for all governments in the state.

One more thing, though: While we’re increasing transparency around lobbyist disclosure, how about transparency for public officials, too? The state and local governments in Maryland require elected officials and high-ranking appointed ones to file annual financial disclosure statements — the sorts of documents that former Baltimore County superintendent Dallas Dance failed to fill out completely, leading to his sentence last week to six months in jail. Almost uniformly, those documents are not posted online in Maryland, meaning the public has a hard time holding officials accountable. The state is working on it, thanks to a 2017!ethics reform law, but local governments by and large are not

One notable exception is Baltimore County, where pursuant to county law elected officials’ forms are posted online. That’s not everything the public needs to know, but it’s a good start. How about it, Mr. Cohen?

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