A year and a half ago, Commissioner Sam Adams made good on a campaign pledge to make city hall more transparent by introducing a series of rules designed to force lobbyists to report their activities—but the latest reports show that Adams' effort is largely a bust.
Well after the rules' six-month trial run, the second quarter lobbying reports—made public last week—showed that a decreasing number of lobbyists are reporting, and open-government advocates say it's time for an overhaul.
"Fewer and fewer lobbyists are reporting, and the groups who are reporting are largely doing it voluntarily, even if they don't have to," says activist Chris Smith, who advocated for the original rules.
The regulation only applies to groups who spend more than 16 hours per quarter lobbying, and that threshold has proven to be so high that only a small handful of organizations—out of the dozens, or hundreds of groups that visit city hall—are reporting their lobbying activities.
Last Thursday, July 19, the city released the second quarter lobbying reports—because of the 16-hour threshold, a mere six organizations reported their activities. In other words, the vast majority of lobbying at city hall is going unreported.
"I think lobbyists have figured out how to get away with not reporting by coming in just under the limit," Smith says.
That situation belies the original intent of the ordinance, to shine a spotlight on the backroom talks that shape every city policy. For instance, last fall's deal between the city's parks department and Warner Pacific College to sell land on Mt. Tabor, which was blasted for going down without public knowledge, never showed up on the lobbyist reports. Nor have other high-profile deals, like the contract to fund the OHSU tram.
According to Carol Cushman of the League of Women Voters, the current rules are putting nonprofit groups at a disadvantage while letting corporations through.
"The way the lobbying regulations are set up with the 16-hour threshold, it's the nonprofit-type lobbyists, who keep track of their preparation and organization time, that are doing all the reporting," she says. "Lobbyists that are more professional don't need 16 hours per quarter in order to make themselves heard."
Cushman and Smith, along with others, have pushed for city council to lower the 16-hour-per-quarter limit. Last June, Commissioners Adams and Erik Sten said they'd support dropping it to eight hours, and this past Monday, July 23, Commissioner Randy Leonard announced that he'd join them, giving them three votes out of five. The result should be a substantial increase in the number of influence peddlers showing up on city hall's books.
But Leonard also wants to put an end to another exemption for a whole group of "lobbyists"—representatives from neighborhood associations. Currently, they're exempted, as long as they have a nonprofit status with the state and follow all of the city's open-meetings rules.
"I meet exponentially more with those types of people," Leonard says. "If the point of the ordinance is to show who we're meeting with and who's influencing policy, then why not require all of the people who meet with us to file reports?"
"[The current regulation] just doesn't feel like an earnest attempt to show who's influencing us," he added.
Len Bergstein, a professional lobbyist, believes the regulations need more work than just lowering the hours.
"The idea of narrowing down the hours to get at the idea of influence is a laudable goal, but it doesn't quite get there," Bergstein says. "I just don't understand how the time you spend preparing to testify at council should be included."
Instead, Bergstein wants to see a system that addresses more clearly who is influencing whom. Still, he said, the current rules are better than nothing. "The effectiveness of the system may just be that there's a system," he says, adding that it forces people to pay attention to who's at city hall.
Shoshanah Oppenheim, Adams' good government policy advisor, is working on an ordinance that would reform the policy, including reducing the per-quarter limit to eight hours.
"In the beginning, we didn't know exactly what these reports were going to look like" because lobbyists had never been tracked before at city hall, says Oppenheim. "But we decided to wait until the rules had been in place for a year before making this change."
Oppenheim expects to have the changes in front of city council within the next couple of weeks.