Host: Does the small City of Sarasota need a registry for lobbyists? One commissioner thinks so. But neighborhood activists are concerned they might end up having to jump through bureaucratic hoops before they talk to their elected officials, along with power utility lawyers, developers, and waste haulers. And one local open-government activist argues the proposal is not dealing with what should be a bigger concern. Our news team has the details.
Johannes Werner: Pushed by Commissioner Erik Arroyo, the City of Sarasota commission on Monday discussed a “Lobbying & Transparency Act” that would create a registry for lobbyists who discuss business with individual commissioners.
Sarasota, Arroyo argues, should have such an ordinance because 400 cities and 60 counties in Florida have one. In a letter dated Oct. 4 to commissioners and the city manager, Arroyo said this act will “not only preserve but .. enhance .. transparency for the betterment of our community.”
“While many of these stakeholders are passionate citizens genuinely concerned for the community, there remains an uncertainty about those who might be representing interests beyond the common welfare, particularly if they’re compensated for such representation,” Arroyo wrote in the letter. “We owe it to our residents and ourselves to differentiate between these two groups”.
But some people are concerned about messing with the fine line between a lobbyist and a community activist.
Community organizers fear Arroyo was prompted to propose this because he has an axe to grind, after some of them criticized his involvement in creating a charity using his position as then-mayor and the city’s name. That non-profit raised funds from developers whose projects come before the city, some pointed out.
The activists’ fears seemed justified because, in his letter to commissioners, Arroyo set forth as a template an ordinance by Florida City, a town in Miami-Dade County. The Florida City ordinance stipulates that unpaid representatives of charitable organizations, homeowner’s associations, trade associations, and trade unions must register as lobbyists as well. Rob Grant, a neighborhood organizer and former city commission candidate who lost against Arroyo, expressed his concerns, saying that might hinder conversations between Sarasota neighborhood associations and elected officials.
Rob Grant: So, while the Florida City law is focused on quote, “paid lobbyists,” that requires annual registration, disclosures and fees, there is an interesting twist in section 2-233 entitled “Registration.” In part it reads, “any person who only appears in his or her individual capacity shall not be required to register.” However, it also says, “a principal of any corporation, partnership or other entity, who appears as a lobbyist, on behalf of that entity, shall register with a clerk.” And it states further, “any person who only appears as a representative of a not for profit corporation or entity, such as a charitable organization, homeowner’s association, trade association or trade union, shall register with the city clerk as required by this section.” So in this ordinance, that means that every CCNA-affiliated neighborhood association board member, or head of any of our arts organizations would have to register as a lobbyist before coming before you to speak on behalf of their organization.
JW: Grant suggested using a City of Orlando ordinance instead that solely focuses on paid lobbyists and does not force representatives of neighborhood associations or slow-growth groups to register.
Arroyo seemingly responded to that concern, saying he is willing to consider any template, including the Orlando ordinance.
It’s not just activists who are pushing back. Commissioner Liz Alpert repeatedly interrupted Arroyo’s explanations, saying she didn’t understand why Sarasota needs such an ordinance. Commissioner Debbie Trice said she didn’t know of a single lobbyist who was being paid to represent business interests before the city. She called Arroyo’s proposal a “solution looking for a problem”, and argued commissioners can simply ask the people they interact with.
Even so, they voted 4-1 – with Jen Ahearn-Koch dissenting – for a motion by Arroyo, seconded by Kyle Battie, to have the city attorney do limited research on ordinances that could serve as a template for Sarasota, and discuss at a later date.
Michael Barfield, a local open-government activist, told WSLR News he is in favor of lobbyist registration. However, he believes the commissioners are slightly off the mark. Barfield says he is more concerned about interactions between businesses and city staffers, rather than commissioners.
Michael Barfield: The other issue, I think is more important, that they may be missing is the lobbying of staff. I think that’s more problematic than, say, a commissioner. They can ask who is lobbying. But I have seen multiple occasions where very high-ranking officials in the city government are meeting with attorneys for developers or advocates on projects coming before them. I think the public deserves to know when that happens. I’ve actually seen people at restaurants laying out plans and meeting with the chief planner, just one example. And I was like, wow, the first question that I asked – in my mind, of course, because I couldn’t ask them – who’s paying for this lunch? Are they both paying for their own lunch, or not? And it just seemed a little unseemly to me to be going over plans for a project in a restaurant, an attorney, a developer, and a chief planner. That’s just one example. So I think that the more transparency you have, you can’t go wrong with that.
JW: Asked about the possibility of neighborhood associations having to register, he said that might go too far. However, he did say he is concerned about developers creating non-profits to argue for their projects, or using non-profits to create a semblance of popular support.
This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.
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