Lukewarm lobbying reform

It's understandable that Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young would be interested in the question of who is required to register as a lobbyist with the city. After all, it was his cousin's participation in a meeting on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's bottle tax proposal that prompted him to abstain from voting on that most contentious element of her budget-balancing package this spring — even though it was totally unclear whether the cousin's actions amounted to lobbying. But aside from unusual circumstances like that, it's hard to see how the legislation Mr. Young introduced this week will do much to make the attempts of special interests to influence city action more transparent to residents.

Mr. Young's bill would expand the universe of people who must register as lobbyists to anyone who is compensated at all for trying to influence city government or anyone who is not compensated but spends more than 20 percent of his or her time over a six-month period performing lobbying activities. Currently, only those who are paid at least $2,500 have to register. The legislation also requires lobbyists to disclose how much they spend on print or broadcast advertisements to influence a debate, or how much they spend on drafting position papers, proposed legislation, amendments, etc. In addition, it prohibits lobbyists from conveying "a fictitious impression of the public's favorable or unfavorable position" on some proposed action or from advertising that he or she "can control or obtain the vote or other action" of a council member.

That's all well and good, but the problem has not typically been that the public has been frustrated by the lack of disclosure by pro-bono or low-paid lobbyists. The problem is that there's no easy way to keep track of what the big fish are doing — and this bill doesn't help with that.

Lobbyists are required to file reports of their activities within five days of beginning to work on an issue. They also must file annual reports listing their compensation and spending on communications with elected officials, gifts, meals and other expenditures. Those reports sit in files in the Department of Legislative Reference in City Hall, and unless a person who is interested in a particular issue goes there to look them up, they would have no idea who was lobbying and how much they were spending. The department doesn't have a sophisticated indexing system, and the records aren't kept electronically, so anything other than a basic question requires a trip to City Hall and the help of the staff member who keeps the files.

Furthermore, the annual reporting requirement for expenditures means that residents often can only find out how much was being spent to influence lawmakers months after the fact. In the case of the bottle tax, the vote took place in June, but activity reports related to it aren't due until Jan. 31.

What would help would be to require the Department of Legislative Reference to post lobbying reports online. The state ethics board does so — its website features the ability to search by lobbyist or by client and includes both registrations and activity reports. The state also posts reports of any violations it finds, which the city does not. Moving to a system of quarterly, rather than annual, activity reports would also be an important step in increasing transparency.

That would probably be impossible with the department's limited staff, but the Young bill also suggests an avenue for rectifying that. He proposes increasing the filing fee from $20 to $100, though for no particular purpose other than making the city's fees comparable to federal lobbying fees. The higher charge could easily be justified if it was in the service of making the process more open and accessible to citizens rather than just raising revenue.

Unfortunately, the criticism of Mr. Young's proposal from his fellow council members has not been that it is too timid but that it goes too far. Some have questioned whether it would have a chilling effect on grass-roots lobbyists like community association heads by forcing them to register — and pay a suddenly more hefty fee. That fear is likely overblown; it's hard to imagine that many community activists spend so much of their time directly lobbying City Hall that they would fall under this legislation. But if that is a concern, the council should consider reducing or eliminating the fees for unpaid lobbyists.

A spokesman for Mr. Young said the council president sees this proposal as only one step in the effort to improve transparency in government. That's good, because even after the reforms Ms. Rawlings-Blake instituted in the wake of the Sheila Dixon scandal, the city has a long way to go to repair public trust, and this legislation doesn't go nearly far enough.

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