Long Beach nonprofits, others rip proposal that would require them to register as lobbyists

By Kristy Hutchins, Press-Telegram

The Long Beach Ethics Commission will seek additional public input and further study its proposed amendments to the city’s longstanding lobbying ordinance, the commission said during its Wednesday, March 8 meeting, after dozens of local nonprofit and neighborhood organizations criticized the potential rule changes.

Long Beach’s lobbying ordinance has been in effect since 2010, and requires business, expenditure and contract lobbyists  — people and groups that are typically employed by wealthy special interest organizations — to influence the outcomes of legislative, legal, or other governmental decisions to register their activities with the City Clerk’s office.

But the rule has been under reconsideration by the city’s relatively newly formed Ethics Commission for about a year. The commission’s recently released proposed changes, if approved unaltered, would entirely redefine what Long Beach considers lobbying — and would require nonprofits, neighborhood associations, and business improvement districts, who have been exempt from the ordinance since its inception, to register as lobbyists with the City Clerk.

The changes, if OK’d by the commission, would still require City Council approval to be adopted. At least four members of the City Council would have to sign onto an item to add it to an upcoming agenda.

About 30 representatives and members of local Long Beach nonprofits and neighborhood associations showed up to commission’s Wednesday afternoon meeting to voice their concerns about the ordinance alterations — and the potential impact they would have on those groups’ abilities to provide community services and interact with their elected officials.

“Our concerns are around creating a new definition of lobby and requiring nonprofits who are advocating for the people that they’re serving to be included in what’s considered lobbying by the city,” said Michelle Byerly, executive director of the Long Beach-based Nonprofit Partnership, in an interview. “When we’re advocating, its for the public good — we’re not doing what lobbyists typically do, which is advocate for a private individuals who will profit.”

The Ethics Commission proposal specifically recommended the removal of the lobbying registration exemption for 501(c)3 nonprofits with an annual operating budget of $50,000 or more, neighborhood associations, and business improvement districts — citing concerns that their relationships with elected officials and other city leadership could allow them to influence governmental decision making.

“At times, the interests pursued by a non-profit or neighborhood organization may diverge from the interests of a portion of the residents, business community or other part of the City,” the report said. “This provides a healthy backdrop for consideration by decision-makers. All points of view should be subject to the sunlight of disclosure under the ordinance.”

Aside from the requirement to register as lobbyists, those groups would also be required to keep records and publicly disclose all communications with city officials in the interest of transparency, the staff report said.

“We all agree that there can be more transparency,” Byerly said, “but putting the burden on to these nonprofit organizations, we believe is a misguided attempt to pull out people who are in violation of the current lobbying policies.”

Nonprofit groups, particularly 501(c)3 groups, are already subject to stringent state and federal regulations and reporting requirements — and are restricted to using 20% of their overall budgets for lobbying purposes.

“We are limited on the amount of direct lobbying work that we as organizations can engage in,” said James Suazo, executive director of nonprofit Long Beach Forward, during an interview. “That not only includes the actual time spent talking to decision makers, but also prep time — and we have to report and track regularly. Its included in nonprofit 990s, which are tax forms that are published publicly.”

To Suazo, the Ethics Commission’s proposed changes to the ordinance would put an undue burden on such nonprofits as LB Forward, which have worked to fill critical gaps in city services for marginalized and historically underserved communities.

“If our organization was doing outreach to homeless folks and we tried to coordinate with what the city is doing, that (would) count against our time as lobbying and would go towards our requirements to register as a lobbyist,” he said. “Not only is this adding additional layers of reporting, but also broadening the scope of what is being tracked — and we don’t have the capacity to be able to keep up with all of these regulations.”

Business improvement districts — quasi-governmental bodies appointed by the City Council to provide services in their respective council districts — would also be similarly impacted. Those groups are in near constant contract with city officials just by the nature of their work — which often revolves around putting on community events or facilitating public works fixes.

“So asking them to begin to report or record all of their communications with city staff, city officials — just to do the day to day operations is going to become overly burdensome,” said DLBA president and CEO Austin Metoyer during a Wednesday interview. “That’s just another layer of bureaucracy that’s going to hinder their their ability to actually do their function.”

Neighborhood associations — which are often led by volunteer residents on minimal budgets — took particular issue with their inclusion in the proposed lobbying ordinance change.

“We’re volunteers working in our free time and city outreach and communication is often lacking,” Julie Dean, president of the Belmont Shore Residents Association, said during public comment. “We still work to ensure the best possible outcome for our area — but to start requiring that volunteers begin recording and documenting our prep time, working hours and interactions with city officials would be burden, and it would also create more hurdles in receiving responses from city staff and elected officials.”

The commission, meanwhile, said they were grateful for the public’s input — and asked their Ad Hoc Committee to fully consider the feedback ahead of their next session. Once the full commission is present, deputy city manager April Walker said Wednesday, the body will have a more fleshed out discussion about the proposed changes with the community feedback in mind.

If the commission opts to make any changes to the proposed lobbying ordinance amendment, Walker said, city staff will likely conduct additional outreach before a final decision is made.

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