Just who is the 'L' word?

With ordinance in effect, Portland gets a look at who's lobbying City Hall

When it comes to city government, is there such a thing as too much transparency?

That's the question raised by the diverse reactions to Portland's new rule on reporting lobbying at City Hall.

Proposed by Commissioner Sam Adams, the lobbying ordinance was approved by the City Council in December. Intended to track influence-peddlers' interactions with top city officials, the first round of reports was filed late last month by groups ranging from Portland General Electric to C-SPOT, Citizens for Safe Parks with Off-leash Territories.

The topics they lobbied ranged from dog parks and sidewalks to street lighting to water rates, and their activities ranged from sending e-mails to meeting in person with city commissioners and their top aides.

The ordinance is not up for review yet - that will happen after the next round of reports is filed in three months' time. Adams said he plans to take a thorough look at the ordinance to see, among other things, who is reporting and who isn't. 'I think we're off to a good start,' he said, 'but I see some potential areas for refinement.'

He's not the only one.

Some people say it should be tightened up to require more reporting, while others think it should require less. In particular, some good-government and grass-roots types are not overjoyed that they are caught up in the new ordinance - which requires all 'lobbying entities' to file detailed quarterly reports if they spend 16 hours or more lobbying in that three-month period.

Since many entities don't know if they are going to spend that much time, it has the effect of requiring just about everyone who regularly participates in Portland's political process to track their every contact with top officials at City Hall.

Rule tracks time, manure

More than 130 individual lobbyists registered, leading to a surprising result: The City Club, a Portland good-government group, dominates the list with 30 individual citizen-volunteers, as compared with only eight lobbyists registered on behalf of the Portland Business Alliance.

Wendy Radmacher-Willis of the City Club says her organization has not taken a position on the ordinance. But she says she's heard from volunteers who are not wild about being listed as 'lobbyists.'

From her perspective, she says: 'I feel like citizen participation is somewhat jeopardized by this. …. To add one more layer of paperwork I think is a lot to ask.'

Dan Handelman, a volunteer with Portland Copwatch, said he is glad that the new rule tracks the lobbying of monied interests, but he's not happy that it acknowledges no difference between those interests and a citizen grass-roots lobbyist such as himself. 'I think that's a mistake,' he said.

While groups like the Portland Business Alliance reported the bulk of the lobbying, it was land-use consultant Peter Finley Fry who provided the entertainment in the ordinance's first go-round.

That's because City Hall aide Rich Rodgers, to comply with the gift-reporting requirement of the new ordinance, dutifully disclosed a trailerload of horse manure that Fry, a friend of his, had given as a wedding gift.

Fry, who reported his lobbying on behalf of Ron Tonkin auto dealerships regarding a city rezoning proposal, isn't sure the ordinance is worth much more than his wedding gift to Rodgers.

'Did it really do what Sam wanted it to do?' he asked. 'Probably not. … Most of the lobbying in Portland never gets reported.'

Fry understands reporting lobbying at the state level, where laws get written all the time, but he said when it comes to the city it may not be as good an idea. For instance, if Fry is concerned about a pothole or the Portland streetcar and wants to talk to Adams, the transportation commissioner, 'Is it really lobbying?' he asks.

Andrea Meyer, an ACLU lawyer who registered as a lobbyist, says that she shares the concern that it is too cumbersome for citizen lobbyists and their parent organizations, so much so that it potentially raises constitutional concerns.

Tracking every contact 'is a pretty heavy burden (that) potentially has a chilling effect on your right to petition government,' she said. 'We don't have any objections to the registration requirements, but I'm just a little bit troubled by the detail of reporting that is required. … I think it's a good idea, but they may have gone a little too far.'

On the other hand, while the reporting may be cumbersome, allowing some organizations to not report just because they are community-based - which was the justification cited for excluding neighborhood associations from the new rule - would differentiate between different categories of free speech, which 'seems a little problematic,' she said.

Not all are caught in net

Ironically, one of the most prominent local lobbyists, Len Bergstein, did not have to file as an individual lobbyist, since he did not spend 16 hours lobbying City Hall for any one entity. Still, looking at others' reports, 'the mechanics of it are a little cumbersome,' he said.

Bergstein doesn't think it's fair that if a city commissioner calls up a lobbyist and asks for a meeting, that that should count as time the lobbyist spent lobbying. He also thinks that elected city officials should report phone calls they make asking for contributions.

'I would hope that they would also be held to the same high standards,' he said. 'If that contact should be monitored, it should be monitored both ways.'

It's unclear if the council will jump on Bergstein's suggestion, however. He made a similar recommendation in testimony before the ordinance was adopted, but the City Council took a pass on it.

Extra work is 'worth it'

Chris Smith, a neighborhood activist who also is active with the City Club, said that as for the time it takes to report his lobbying efforts, just being able to know about the lobbying by the Portland Business Alliance 'made it all worth it.'

He does think there could be some changes to improve it, such as showing which individual lobbyist attended each meeting, and making it broad enough so that more professional lobbyists, such as Bergstein, have to file individually.

Debbie Aiona, of the League of Women Voters, kept track of all her lobbying, every e-mail, phone call and meeting in a tiny spiral notebook that she then handed off to her group's office manager to enter into the city's lobbyist-reporting Web site.

She understands why some would feel that the level of detail being required is excessive, but she thinks the value in transparency outweighs it.

As for the concern about the negative connotation in lobbying, she said, 'Lobbying isn't a sleazy thing to do.'

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