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Online portal will publicly display Baltimore lobbying disclosures

The city of Baltimore has set up an online portal where lobbyists must register and submit disclosure forms to the city Ethics Board twice a year, instead of annually. City Hall is shown in this May 2, 2019, file photo.
The city of Baltimore has set up an online portal where lobbyists must register and submit disclosure forms to the city Ethics Board twice a year, instead of annually. City Hall is shown in this May 2, 2019, file photo. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty)

Baltimore has set up a public online portal where lobbyists can register and file disclosure forms to the city Ethics Board twice a year, instead of annually, as a result of a recent law to tighten lobbying restrictions, officials announced Wednesday.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Councilman Zeke Cohen, Democrats who sponsored the Transparency in Lobbying Act, announced the portal’s debut Wednesday in a news conference. The legislation took effect 90 days after being signed by the mayor in December 2018, and the city technology office has been working on the portal since May.

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“We’re serious about creating an accessible government as open and accountable to the citizens we serve,” Young said.

The law requires lobbyists approaching city government officials to “affirmatively identify” who they represent and to file disclosure reports twice a year, rather than annually. It requires the City Ethics Board to post those reports online, disclosing who paid lobbyists — and how much. Those who fail to report could face a $1,000 penalty for each violation and a three-year ban from lobbying at City Hall.

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The legislation “really makes Baltimore one of the leading cities when it comes to transparency and lobbying,” Cohen said.

“We believe that journalists and citizens should have access to what’s happening within city government," Cohen said.

Lobbyists must file reports of their representation for the first six months of a calendar year on July 31 and for the second half of the year by Jan. 31 of the following year, according to the law.

The reports must include any gifts of $100 or more — including meals, beverages, parties, dinners, lodging, athletic events and other entertainment — given to a public servant or their family members, according to the law. They must include the date and location of each event or activity and the lobbyist’s expenses.

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It’s the third city law enacted in the past decade designed to better highlight how corporations and advocacy groups spend to affect city legislation.

As City Council president, Young sponsored a law in 2016 requiring 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.

Rianna Eckel, a lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, which advocates for accessible and affordable water service in Baltimore, called corporate influence “one of the biggest threats to our food, to our water and to our climate.”

“Today we are making a critical step towards ensuring high spenders and outside influencers are not able to come to City Hall and push their agendas quietly, and that will be known by constituents, by the public and by advocacy organizations, as well,” Eckel said. “We all have the right to know who is spending what when it comes down to the decisions that truly matter after election day."

The act will force lobbyists to proactively identify their clients to lawmakers and more regularly report “who is paying us and how much is being spent," said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group that assisted with the legislation.

“Baltimoreans should be able to access information on those individuals or those entities that are working to influence the decisions that are being made that are going to impact their every day lives,” Antoine said.

Leandra Pauley, who developed the bill as a fellow in Cohen’s office, noted work on the legislation began before the public learned of a self-dealing scandal that prompted Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh to resign from office in May.

“It’s really important that we implement these systems to put in place to ensure that that transparency stays in place, that citizens are constantly informed of what their elected officials are doing, and that we’re able to hold those accountable to who they serve, because it is for us and for our communities,” she said.

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