A Brief Guide to Seattle’s New Lobbying Rules

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the Seattle City Council quietly adopted legislation that will have far-reaching implications for groups that mobilize ordinary people to lobby the mayor, city council, and other city officials.

The bill, proposed by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) and shepherded by council president Lorena González, will require so-called grassroots lobbyists to register with the city and disclose their contributions and expenditures.

Although the proposal passed with little opposition, it makes a number of significant changes to Seattle’s campaign disclosure law that will impact groups on every part of the political spectrum. Here’s a closer look at the legislation and some of the ways it will change how campaigns operate in Seattle — and what the public knows about them.

First, what was the impetus for this legislation?

According to González, the SEEC decided to take a closer look at its lobbying rules in 2019, after the Seattle Times reported that a consulting firm that worked on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s campaign, Sound View Strategies, also advised her on issues after she was elected. “There was a lot of ambiguity around who had to disclose [that they were lobbying],” González said.

As the SEEC discussed who is and isn’t a lobbyist, they decided to ask the council to define “lobbying” more broadly, to include efforts to influence not just elected officials but city employees in influential positions, such as deputy mayors and department heads. And they decided to tackle the definition of “lobbyist” itself, redefining the term to include people and organizations that mobilize members of the public to advocate for or against legislation.

So how does the bill change the definition of “lobbying” and “lobbyist”?

Any group or person that spends $750 a month or more on a campaign to mobilize the public on an issue — for example, a group that works to convince people to make public comments opposing the demolition of a nightclub important to the Seattle music scene in the ‘90s — is now considered a grassroots lobbyist and must register with the city and disclose where their money is coming from and how they’re spending it. The SEEC recommended this change because of the rise in what’s known as indirect lobbying — using the public, rather than direct pressure on elected leaders, as a lobbying tool.

The other change to the definition of lobbying impacts traditional lobbyists — the 300 or so people who have already registered with the city and who already report their contributions and expenditures. These folks will now have to report when they’re being paid to lobby not just elected officials but their deputies, top staff, department heads, and anyone who reports directly to any of those people. The idea is to acknowledge the fact that people who aren’t at the top of the org chart still have the power to influence policy and legislation — that meeting with the deputy mayor or the chief of staff for a council member, in some cases, is as good as meeting with the mayor or council member herself.

This “grassroots lobbying” concept is confusing. Can you give a couple more examples?

Other examples of grassroots lobbyists might include an organization that pays a former city candidate to write reports denouncing a proposed new misdemeanor defense or a political organization that runs email and social media campaigns to “pack city hall” in favor of legislation imposing new taxes on big businesses. An elected official, however, can’t be a grassroots lobbyist, because they’re categorically exempt from the lobbying regulations. So while Socialist Alternative might have to register if they spend their own money stapling “Tax Amazon” posters to light poles around town, Council Member Kshama Sawant is free to use her office to rally the public for or against legislation without signing up as a lobbyist.

The  idea of “grassroots lobbying” isn’t new, by the way — the city bill is modeled on existing state law that imposes similar requirements on state-level lobbyists and influence groups.

How does the legislation address the original problem the SEEC set out to solve — the issue of campaign consultants turning around and lobbying the people she worked for?

The new law will require those lobbyists to disclose that they also worked for campaigns. This will most likely impact a handful of prominent lobbyists whose work for campaigns and on behalf of interest groups that lobby the city is already a matter of public record. Although the Seattle Times suggested a nefarious cover-up by the consultants who worked on Durkan’s campaign and then turned around and lobbied her on behalf of other clients, the story was basically a headline in search of scandal.

How many people and groups might this impact — and why aren’t they pissed?

It’s hard to know exactly how many individuals and organizations will have to register as grassroots lobbyists under the new law. Registration itself is free, but as a staff memo attached to the legislation notes, groups could have to shoulder administrative costs to stay in compliance, and the SEEC reserves the right to fine people and groups that violate the city’s lobbying laws.

It’s likely that many groups that do grassroots lobbying are unaware of the new rules, but they’ll find out soon enough. The legislation will take effect around June of next year.

Anything else I need to know?

It’s important to remember that this legislation won’t impact individuals making public comment or writing emails to the city council or organizations with all-volunteer or no-budget lobbying arms. The point of the bill is to increase transparency to the public about who is trying to influence legislation and who’s paying for it, not to create burdens on individuals or nonprofits that rarely or never lobby the city.