Baltimore City Council tightens restrictions on lobbyists, require forms go online

The Baltimore City Council passed legislation Monday that would tighten restrictions on lobbyists and require the ethics board to post lobbying disclosure forms online.

“Our city is taking steps towards becoming more transparent and open,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents Southeast Baltimore. “This legislation places Baltimore at the forefront of lobbying reform.”

Cohen’s bill, called the Transparency in Lobbying Act, would require:

  • Lobbyists approaching city government officials to “affirmatively identify” their clients;
  • Lobbyists to file disclosure reports twice a year, rather than annually.
  • The ethics board to post those reports online within 30 days of their filing, disclosing who paid lobbyists _ and how much;
  • The City Ethics Board to consider a three-year ban for any lobbyist who violates the act.

Top lobbyists in Baltimore can earn more than $100,000 a year working on bills before the City Council and contracts before the Board of Estimates. But forms showing how much they are being paid by which clients are kept in a box in City Hall in the offices of the Department of Legislative Reference.

Cohen said the only amendment of substance changed the proposed number of times lobbyists must file reports each year from four to two. He said council members were concerned with the ability of smaller firms to keep up with the paperwork.

“For the larger firms, it’s not major issue to get these reports done,” Cohen said. “But there are some smaller firms in town operating on a shoestring budget and working for clients without many financial resources.”

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young praised the bill, and noted this would be the third ethics reform undertaken by city government since 2012.

A law sponsored by Young in 2016 required the ethics board to post on its website a searchable list of all registered lobbyists and required the city's finance department to post on its website a searchable list of all entities that have done business with city government in the past calendar year.

In 2012, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed into law two bills designed to reduce the mayor’s control over the ethics board: One bill gave the council president and the city comptroller the power to nominate one member each to the five-person panel. Previously, the mayor designated each member. The other bill staggered the terms of the board members.

Common Cause Maryland helped work on the latest legislation.

“We're extremely pleased the council has moved this bill quickly,” said its director, Damon Effingham. “It’s going to be a great example for the rest of Maryland.”

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