Lobbying Against Lobbying

It can't be a surprise to many folks that some current and former UNC employees on the Town Council are uncomfortable with the proposal to have people who are paid to lobby the Council register and document their activities. To me, their objection is further evidence of the need for better monitoring of lobbying activities.

To borrow some "logic" from red light camera supporters, you have nothing to be afraid of if you're not doing something wrong. This proposal won't stop local citizens from cornering their favorite Council member at the grocery store and bending their ear about a pet issue. It simply acknowledges the fact that there are now people, employees of both private and public entities, whose job it is to influence the Council. This is an evolving situation that should be addressed.

Fred Black raised the question of whether this is aimed solely at UNC. Although the group that brought it up is mostly concerned with UNC's lobbying, I think the recent activities of ACS appearing to pull Dorothy Verkerk's puppet strings makes it clear that this is needed to apply more broadly.

Since I have a full-time job and other committments, I don't have much time and energy to lobby the Council. I don't get to make private appointments with Council members, take them to football games, or shower them with promotional items as many of these lobbyists do. It seems to me that this propopal might help a little to level the playing field.




Mr. Black,

Let me refer you to some of the answers provided by the town and ACS, and reviewed by the council last October, to some questions I asked a couple times last summer.

23. What communications, if any, has the company’s lobbyists had with employees or elected officials bearing on the current use of and the continued use of the cameras? None according to TOWN/ACS.

24. What discussions, if any, has the company or its lobbyist had with employees or officials in terms of defending the usage of these cameras? None according to TOWN/ACS.

Now, I spoke with Councilman Verkerk before that infamous ACS PR event at town hall (you know, the one that the four councilmember's stood quietly by as Mr. Clapp wrongfully bashed one of their fellow members) and she said that she had been in contact with the National Campaign to Stop Re-light Running before those questions were answered. She also indicated she was aware of ACS's relationship to it.

Now, she absolutely was aware of these questions and their answers yet she didn't step forward and correct ACS's answer about lobbying. If I can ask a council member, several times, if they are in contact with either a vendor or a vendor's lobbyist and they allow those answering for them to, essentially, lie and say no, what am I to do?

What if she hadn't told me about the contacts at the PR event?

Given that integrity might not be the ultimate safe-guard, what else are we to do?

I really want to understand this petition before I completely disagree with it, but to answer your question Ruby ("what do you think would be the harm of requiring lobbyists to register?"), is how we define a lobbyist. According to encyclopedia.com, lobbying is:

the practice and profession of influencing governmental decisions, carried out by agents who present the concerns of special interests to legislators and administrators. The term originated in the United States of the 1830s, when representatives of interest groups tended to congregate in the lobbies of Congress and state legislatures. It is now used in a broader sense to include attempts to influence any governmental actions.

Now, CNC proclaims that UNC making its decision-makers more accessible to CH's decision-makers constitutes an impermissible act of lobbying (or at least one that should be public to CH citizens). CNC defends itself saying it is just wants CH's decision-makers to be more accessible and accountable to CH's citizens, and consequently council members must be less accessible to UNC's decision-makers. It's a logical correlation. CNC wants the Town Council to listen to CH's citizens first; after all, that's their job.

Similarly, I'm under the impression that CNC thinks their petition would have protected citizens against ACS's lobbying. We still aren't sure if ACS (a contracted vendor) would be included under the definition of a lobbyist, but let's assume it is. It makes me wonder what protection that affords citizens when council members write their scripts on RLC's even before hearing the public.

Does the CNC feel as though it should register itself and all of its members as lobbyists? After all, the name of this thread is "lobbying against lobbying." I suppose what I'm getting at here is an extension of the questions Duncan asked above. How am I, a citizen of Chapel Hill, to think that a lobbying ordinance makes my elected representatives any more accountable to me?

Not gloating about CAN, Fred. Just confirming a rumor by going to the source. Hope that's okay.

We puppets have good eyes which allow us to see the difference between astroturf and growing grass.

Pawns however cannot tell the difference or refuse to look.


Can you tell?

Registering lobbyists might help you understand.

Fred, do you mean how would the Town's relationship with ACS have been different? We'll never know, but I think that promotion of the cameras might have been accompanied by some daylight shining on the sources of information used by pro-RLC advocates, and increased awareness of ACS's activities relating to Council members. For example, it might be informative to know how many times Leslie Blakey of ACS called or visited with Council Member Verkerk. Or it might not. If we knew the answer and it seemed reasonable, then there would be less cause for suspicion.

You have asked a lot of questions here, Fred. I would like to ask you, what is it about this proposal to register lobbyists that you object to? What negative consequences do you anticipate?

Yes, I have questions but not many answers. "Reasonable" is a very difficult standard to define in such situations, and I do not know that even if you have a lobbyist registration process if it would cover a vendor/contractor that your Town Manager sought out and signed a contract with. Guess lawyers would have to answer that. Just like the campaign finance legislation, I don't see these types of laws doing what their supporters hope that they would do. I like the burden being on the Council member to do the right thing and I have seen no evidence that we have a problem.

To borrow a quote, it seems like bad public policy if it doesn't solve a public policy problem.

Fred said, "I have seen no evidence that we have a problem."

Then I guess that's where we disagree. I think the original approval of the ACS contract signaled a problem, and I also think that the Town's creation of the OI-4 zone, and the Council's subsequent approval of every UNC development application constitutes a problem.

I can't know for sure that this proposal would change that, but I have serious concerns about the amount of pressure upon Council members, and I think this might help those voices who don't have money and power to wave in their faces and over their heads. Fred and others, what do you think would be the harm of requiring lobbyists to register? In my mind, there's a lot of potential benefits and I haven't heard much in the way of drawbacks.

Good night!

Mr. H. Doody, as has been mentioned in a couple of articles since the election, Gary Barnes replaced me as the chair of CAN after the election. This was a plan more than a half year in the making, so one need not read anything into it. BTW, can pupets read or does Buffalo Bob read to you? :->

And Ruby, could you tell us what would have changed if we had the Madison ordinance here in CH --- would a vendor/contractor to the Town have to register as a lobbyist to work with the Council or its members? I see it as they had a contract that some were trying to end, and they believed that false information was being used to end the contract. Do they not deserve to have their say? The Council member did not pick the vendor.

I have to say, Mr. Black raises a point that needs to be answered. It's one thing to have on record the fact that "Citizen's Grassroots Coalition for [fill in blank]" is not a grassroots coalition at all, but a lobbying effort bankrolled by an entity with business before the Council. That seems useful. It's another thing to put the names of a bunch of university officials on a list.

(Of course, an ordinance governing lobbying could, and likely would, involve more than just keeping a list, but I'll accept this in the interest of keeping it simple.)

Has anyone been under the impression that, when a UNC official calls on a member of the Council to plead the university's case on something, that person isn't lobbying on behalf of the university? I suppose if the university actively concealed the fact that certain people calling on the Council were university employees acting on behalf of the university, we'd have a problem. But is there any evidence this is happening? And if that's not happening, what's achieved by identifying someone as an employee of the university when you already know that?

Much has been said about the University assigning top staff to individual members of the Council to either be a contact person for that Council member, or an active lobbyist focusing on that Council member and their political weaknesses (depending on your point of view). Again, I have to say so what? That only seems a formal effort to organize something that is already happening-- namely, University officials talking with (or pleading or threatening, whatever) members of the Council.

I understand that it must be a unnerving to know, as a Council member, that members of the University's top staff are meeting and talking about you, and have as part of their paid duties the task of keeping tabs on you. (Or making friends with you, whatever.) Still, I don't see how any of that forces a Council member to take a meeting. I think the University ought to have better things to do than spend so much time focused on and privately meeting with individual members of the Council. I think that their communications with the Council ought to always be public if for no other reason than the fact that the University is a public institution and the Council is an elected body. But I also recognize that each Council member can choose to make public their communications with the University right now, and so I'm not sure what an ordinance covering the University protects us from.

I can see how an ordinance would help Council members identify the aforementioned "grassroots" lobbyists because they don't readily identify themselves. But aren't University officials pretty easy to identify in this town?

At the same time, I'm not sure how it would be any skin off the University's nose to have to register, or to voluntarily register -- unless there's something they'd rather not reveal. And I don't know what that would be, unless there's a lot more official, University-sanctioned lobbying going on than we -- including the Council -- know about. That would be a good reason to want to be exempted from registering. Maybe the University and its defenders would care to explain how registering would chill communications between the University and the Council. I'd like to hear that.

Finally, I wonder what happens when you require registration of people paid by the University to lobby. I can see the University becoming very strict about who has "lobbying" in their job description, only registering those people, and claiming that every other University employee who calls on Council members are, by the definition of their job description, not compensated as lobbyists and therefore not required to register. People you might not otherwise know as University employees would have no incentive -- indeed, they would have a disincentive -- to reveal that they work at the University.

(Revealing that they work at the University would call into question whether they're lobbying or not, and that would raise the question of whether any employee of the University can take up for the University out of only a citizen's interests and not those of an employee, and that would raise the more theoretical question of whether the two roles -- employee and citizen -- can ever be separated one from the other.)

I'm just thinking out loud here. I know that some citizens and members of the Council have great concerns about what they perceive to be the University's increased interest in taking a hand in, and influencing, local politics. (In some cases it's more than just concern, based on reports from the University.) I just don't see how you can change that with an ordinance. It might really suck to know, if you're Council Member X, that the University is interested in finding your political weaknesses and exploiting them so as to muscle you or unseat you. As a citizen, I would be outraged. But I don't see how an ordinance stops anything.

And so I'm interested to hear from both sides about why UNC should be included/excluded from any hypothetical registration ordinance, and how things would be different if they were included/excluded.

I, too, hate it when the good name of Puppet is besmirched! DV is not one of us. She does give out more than information though. From this week's Independent:

"When Councilwoman Dorothy Verkerk had an information session last week to defend Chapel Hill's red light camera system, she came armed with free videos, pencils, coasters, pens with plastic signal lights at the top, and posters featuring sports stars, free to all comers. Backing her up was the Washington-based public relations group that had produced all those freebies, the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, and Affiliated Computer Systems, the Dallas-based information technology firm that runs the cameras."

By the way, Fred, when I was in the line at HT getting my favorite Superbowl drink, Woodpecker Hard Cider, I overheard someone saying that there is a new chair of CAN. Could you verify that?

Fred, I said that ACS "appeared" to be pulling Dorothy's strings. I can't know whether they were or not. Especially since we have no system for the Town to monitor paid lobbyists.

All I can say is how it looked to me, and it wasn't good. Again, this reinforces the need for more formality in the lobbyist-council member relationship. Don't we voters deserve to know what they're doing? A little daylight might clear up the misconception, if it is one.

Much has been made of the fact that Madison, whose ordinance was suggested as a model by CNC, does not require UW to register. But on January 21, Rob Shapard reported that Wisconsin's "city lobbyist" said "We comply because we want to be a good neighbor with the city. It's the type of ordinance that you would expect in Madison, Wis. We have a pretty progressive, liberal tradition. Everybody has learned to live with it fine."

Two questiosn arise that Shapard did not explore:

1) even if, as Wiggins suggests in today's Herald, UNC were exempted, would UNC comply "because they want to be a good neighbor"? A reporter could ask UNC honchos that direct questions, followed by "if not, why not?" if need be.

2) Does Chapel Hill have a "pretty progressive liberal tradition" that would lead us to "expect" such an ordinance? And, if so, what alternative tradition do Verkerk and Wiggins cling to?

Dan, if the burden is on the Council member to follow the law, report gifts and comply with all of the other laws governing ex parte communications, what do we solve when we put the name of a UNC administrator on a list in the Clerk's office? I still like Joe C's take on this.

And Ruby, I think you are doing a real disservice when you call Dorothy Verkerk a puppet having her strings pulled. Cannot a Council member interact with a contracted vendor of the Town? Is it wrong to try to get facts from that vendor about their product rather than just accept the (mis)information that was floating around in this kind of "my expert is more right than your expert" type of situations?

As has been pointed out in recent editorials, we seem to switch our standards for policy analysis from situation to situation around her. I hope that this behavior is not a "Chapel Hill value."

Folks who followed this issue should read the editorial in today's Herald, Full disclosure for state's lobbyists.

It says in part:

North Carolina's lobbying laws say the folks whose working days are spent trying to influence legislators and legislation don't have to report entertainment expenses as long as no specific legislation is discussed.

That's a big loophole.

The N. C. Coalition for Lobbying Reform wants to close it. It has launched an aggressive campaign to persuade the legislature to strengthen the lobbying laws to require disclosure of such expenditures.

No one should be shocked that lobbyists spend a lot of time and money developing relationships. We're not so naïve as to think that's going to go away, or even should go away.

But we do think voters need to know who is building those relationships, and how much they are putting into the effort. It might make a big difference to a voter to know that his or her representative is regularly feted by the Chamber of Commerce -- or the AFL-CIO.

I fully agree with the Herald. The question then becomes, as raised in Chapel Hill last year, whether what's good for the goose, good for the gosling. Given the proposed reporting threshhold that would exempt most citizens, businesses, and non-profits, registration of paid lobbyists and reporting is a minimal task that, as the Herald put it, "insures an open process."



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