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Santa Monica Needs More Sunshine in the Decision-making Process

July 12, 2021

Dear Editor,

As the City considers the upcoming 13 Item regarding overhaul of the City’s lobbying policy, three critical issues need to be addressed if the new policy is to have any real impact ("Council to Consider Barring Lobbyists From Boards and Commissions," July 8, 2021).

Those issues are:

Santa Monica-specific Objectives
Definition of a Lobbyist or Legislative Advocate
Policy Administration

Santa Monica-specific Objectives

Given the outsized city wealth, and the potential wealth impacts of practically every decision in the city, it is not a coincidence that there are countless influencers seeking an advantage in every facet of city decision making.

As the stakes get higher each year, the problem grows. Each year, resident trust in city government diminishes by an equal and opposite measure.

Consequently, the city requires what can only be termed “radical transparency” in the form of strong and extensive lobbyist regulation. Out of an abundance of caution, any policy solution should err on the side of maximal transparency.

Definition of a Lobbyist or Legislative Advocate

The current concept being contemplated is modeled on Beverly Hills. While a good start, the BH ordinance only regulates “Compensated Legislative Advocates.”

That is too limiting. Persons holding “volunteer” positions that can direct the actions of Legislative Advocate organizations should also be included.

Due consideration should also be given in any potential update to individuals in positions of responsibility, or exercising significant influence whether paid or unpaid, in §527 organizations.

These organizations are typically parties, candidates, committees or associations organized for the purpose of influencing an issue, policy, appointment or election, be it federal, state or local.

Such organizations can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations or labor unions, but they must register with the IRS and disclose their contributions and expenditures.

The City website FAQs currently lists the following as individuals that should register as lobbyists:

  • The intergovernmental affairs representative of a utility or government entity

  • Partners and any associates of a law firm that lobbies

  • Architect and attorney of a development project team

  • Hired consultant lobbying for a neighborhood group

  • Executive Director or Head Fundraiser for a nonprofit group

Some appropriate exemptions for non-compensated persons are warranted and already in the SMMC [§4.85.020(c)(1-4)] as follows:

  • Persons whose attempts to influence government action are limited to appearing at public meetings or preparing, processing or limited to submitting writings for consideration of use at public meetings if their communications are part of the public record

  • Persons representing themselves in attempting to obtain decisions relating to their own properties or business

  • Persons whose communications related solely to a memorandum of understanding or collective bargaining agreement between the City and its employee organization

  • Persons who are officials or members of neighborhood groups who are not economically compensated for advocating or speaking on behalf of neighborhood groups to influence a City action

Policy Administration

Without effective administration and enforcement, any statute will be completely ineffective. As the FPPC does not have jurisdiction over local lobbyist rules, we are completely dependent upon City staff, specifically the City Clerk and legal departments.

As such, the amount of compliance discretion exercised by the City clerk and legal team are a critical element that should be addressed.

The current lobbyist registration policy FAQ on the City website states that the Executive Director or Head Fundraiser for a nonprofit group needs to register.

One would think that the current Executive Director of Abundant Housing LA, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, would have been required to register. But, as a potential example of discretionary enforcement, they so far have not been required to do so by either the City Clerk or the City Attorney.

Separately, in the August 9, 2016 Council meeting discussion regarding adoption of the original ordinance, implementation was delayed by the City clerk so as not to interfere with the upcoming elections.

Resident trust in our local governance is essential. Given the unprecedented number of high stakes issues facing the City and its residents, the need for bright sunlight on every aspect of decision making has never been greater.

Without it, we will struggle to reverse the ever expanding divisions and declining trust that have plagued our city over the past decade.

Marc L. Verville
Santa Monica

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