Should nonprofits have to register as lobbyists in Long Beach? Ethics Commission still debating

By Jason Ruiz, Long Beach Post

As the Long Beach Ethics Commission continues to tweak its recommendations to tighten the city’s lobbying laws, nonprofits are arguing they should remain exempt from registering as lobbyists to avoid a chilling effect on their advocacy.

The Ethics Commission met Wednesday afternoon to discuss some new changes it’s considering to a proposal from earlier this year when they signaled they may do away with rules that exempted nonprofits from the city’s 2010 lobbying ordinance.

Despite dozens of nonprofit leaders showing up to a March 6 meeting to tell the commission that this would harm local nonprofits and the underserved communities that they often advocate for, the commission’s report Wednesday still indicated that some nonprofits would have to register their contacts with city officials.

The proposal now includes “advocacy” as a form of lobbying, but a previously considered rule to make groups like business improvement districts and neighborhood associations register as lobbyists has been dropped for now.

James Suazo, executive director of Long Beach Forward—a nonprofit that works with low-income communities to fight for things like renters’ rights, translation services from the city and economic and racial equity—said the shooting death of a 12-year-old boy this week is a good example of why nonprofits shouldn’t be required to register as lobbyists.

“If my group comes to advocate for safer streets and more resources and that forces us to register as lobbyists, I question how that is equitable or ethical,” said Suazo, who lives near where the shooting occurred

The commission started looking into changes to Long Beach’s lobbying law over a year ago. The law, which has never resulted in any enforcement action, came under fire from critics for having no teeth and including numerous loopholes.

One longtime lobbyist in Long Beach, who has repeatedly complained about the law, singled out nonprofits as groups that should be logging their time advocating for issues, which are often at odds with developers and other entities represented by paid lobbyists.

Long Beach Forward is part of 21 nonprofits that signed a letter opposing the nonprofit exemption being lifted. The letter reiterated points made at previous meetings about the financial burden and extra administrative work that would place on groups already struggling to do their work.

Nonprofits are already required to file lobbying disclosures with the Internal Revenue Service to maintain their tax-exempt status.

Expanding the definition of lobbying to include “advocacy” could cause nonprofits to withdraw from the work they’re doing, which could harm the communities they serve, the organizations argued. The groups have also argued it could endanger their nonprofit status.

“Broadening the scope of the ordinance to include ‘advocacy’ whether or not there is a specific matter pending for consideration is a chilling and drastic recommendation to make in a landscape where local governments are restricting rights, freedom of speech, and access for many marginalized groups,” the letter said.

Whether the commission will ultimately recommend that nonprofits be required to disclose their contacts in the future is undecided. The commission plans to have at least one more public meeting where it hopes more community members will give them direction on the issue before they potentially draft a new proposal to send to the City Council, which must ultimately approve the changes.

Commission Chair Margo Morales said that the meeting could happen as soon as the end of June, but the commission is still working out the logistics.

The city’s lobbying law is intended to provide a level of transparency to the public by requiring people or business entities to report when they lobby city decision-makers for policy changes or project approvals.

However, the city relies on self-reporting and has few resources dedicated to verifying if lobbyists are actually logging their contacts with city officials. It has never resulted in any kind of punishment, which potentially include a misdemeanor conviction, fines and a temporary ban from lobbying in the city.

Commissioners are trying to close some of those gaps by coming up with ways to require tighter reporting standards.

Some other changes being considered are doing away with a requirement that lobbyists show how much time they spend preparing for a meeting with city officials and instead requiring them to disclose any materials that they provided during those meetings.

The current law’s threshold for having to register is 50 hours during a three-month period but could now be reduced to 10 hours in a three-month period, or three contacts within a month.

Reports are currently filed biannually, but the commission wants to see more frequent reporting (monthly, with more information included like what precisely was talked about and what position the lobbyists have taken on the issue).

“If you look at the lobbying reports right now, sometimes it’s very difficult to understand the position a particular lobbyist has taken,” said Commissioner Barbara Pollack, who added that the current six-month filing cycle means decisions can be made before the public has the ability to understand who was influencing decision makers.

The commission appears to have abandoned another proposal that could have required City Council members and other city officials to self-disclose contacts with lobbyists as a way to verify lobbyists’ own disclosures. Instead, the commission could recommend that the city allocate more funding to the City Clerk’s office to audit lobbyists’ filings as they come in.

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