City Will Require More Transparency from Public Influence Campaigns

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council’s governance committee moved forward legislation drafted by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission that would require “grassroots lobbyists”—defined as people or organizations that spend at least $750 a month trying to influence the public to lobby public officials on legislation—to register with the city and disclose their contributions and expenditures.

According to council president Lorena González, who spoke with PubliCola about the proposal last week, “if you’re a small operation that isn’t spending any money to present a public influence campaign, then nothing’s going to change for you. It is going to change the regulations and the environment for people who are well-organized, well-funded, and are spending the required mat of money on presenting public-facing campaigns that are designed to influence legislation.”

Importantly, the new requirements wouldn’t impact regular people contacting the city directly, even if that contact is prompted by a grassroots lobbying effort—like a social media campaign that urges you to contact your council members. If a socialist organization holds a rally to drum up support for a new tax proposal, for example, that group would have to register as a lobbying organization and report the cost of the rally to the city, but a person who shows up at the rally and decides to testify in favor of the proposal would not. The lobbying rules wouldn’t apply to elected officials, who are allowed under the city’s ethics rules to lobby the public to their heart’s content.

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The legislation, which González is sponsoring, would also expand the definition of direct lobbying to include communications with department directors and staff for elected officials, and require public disclosure when a lobbyist also works on campaigns for politicians or ballot measures—henceforth known as the Sandeep Kaushik rule.

As PubliCola reported last month, one group that would be impacted by the legislation is Change Washington, which has attempted to influence the public using email campaigns, op/eds, and a series of misleading “reports” by former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay that have argued against police funding cuts and legislation creating a new defense to misdemeanor charges for people with severe mental health or drug dependency issues. Currently, the public has little insight into who’s behind Change Washington or how much Lindsay and its staff are being paid to indirectly lobby the council. The grassroots lobbying legislation would ensure that groups like this are subject to the same transparency requirements as other lobbyists.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett noted that the commission first proposed this legislation a year ago, on the hope that they could spend the “off” year for local elections ironing the kinks out of the new reporting system. “This is going to be a hotly contested election year,” Barnett said. “This is not landing at the best time for us, I’ll be frank with you about that.”

Quick history-lesson aside: This isn’t the first time the council has attempted to regulate grassroots lobbying. In 2008, then-council member Nick Licata considered including grassroots lobbyists in his lobbyist registration proposal (which ultimately passed, requiring lobbyists to register with the city ever since). One of the most blatant recent examples of grassroots lobbying at that time was a 16-page insert that ran in both Seattle daily papers urging readers to vote against the monorail. But activists such as the Eastlake Community Council’s Chris Leman (who would go on to be arrested for threatening a city employee in her office) argued that legislation regulating grassroots lobbyists could create a chilling effect (or lead to penalties against) community groups like neighborhood councils.

The council will need to find between $155,000 and $168,000 to hire a new staffer to implement the new regulations, assuming they pass. González noted Tuesday that the city isn’t exactly flush, but said she would prioritize finding the funds for what has been a longstanding priority for the ethics commission. The legislation gives the ethics commission six months to get the registration program up and running.