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City commissioner wants stricter rules for lobbying

Written by on Wednesday, April 17, 2024

But Erik Arroyo, who has had previous run-ins with ethics, doesn’t get a lot of support from his peers.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Apr. 17, 2024

Host: One City of Sarasota commissioner wants stricter rules on lobbying, but he doesn’t get a lot of support from his peers, as Ramon Lopez reports.

Ramon Lopez: The Sarasota City Commissioners voted 3-2 on April 1 to direct City Attorney Robert Fournier to prepare a potential ordinance to track political lobbying.

The ordinance was first proposed by City Commissioner Erik Arroyo last October. Fournier was directed to research how other municipalities handled the lobbying registration matter. At the April 1 meeting, Fournier outlined similar lobbying ordinances he found in other Florida cities.

Meanwhile, a Government Accountability Bill did not pass the state House in this year’s session.

The Lobbying & Transparency Act proposed by Arroyo envisions a registration requirement for anyone paid to lobby the city, and a requirement that they disclose their client. The info would be kept in a publically accessible database for all to see.

Arroyo’s push for a lobbying ordinance comes as he faces a controversy involving Ken Thompson Park. It was revealed that Arroyo — a practicing attorney — is a registered agent for a company involved with a proposal for a private development at the park. In 2023, he was investigated for his failure to register a charity before accepting contributions from local developers.

During the public comment period, supporters and opponents of the proposal spoke out: Jose Fernandez and Rob Grant.

Jose Fernandez: We need to get started. You failed at that. You already know who these people are, but we the citizens of Sarasota don’t. And we need this especially during an election year. Something is better than nothing.

Rob Grant: There are a lot of reasons why this Lobbying and Transparency Act, I think is a ridiculous waste of time. Among the reasons you don’t need a new ordinance is that you already have systems in place for full disclosure of any person that speaks before the City Commission, and you have logs in the city commissioners’ office for people who visit.

RL: Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Debbie Trice have consistently opposed the proposal. Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch:

Jen Ahearn-Koch: This is a problem I don’t even know what we’re trying to solve with this. It’s going to be costly. And it’s going to cause undue work on the city auditor and clerk, and I think it’s going to be very vague, and my concern is that it’s going to be causing more harm than good in serving our citizens, who may not want to come down here and speak. That is going to have the opposite effect of transparency. If anybody wants to know who we’re meeting with, they do request our calendars. This is going to offer a false sense of security and transparency. I don’t see the need for this, and I’m worried about the cost and the burden on the city auditor and clerk. I understand the intent of Commissioner Arroyo, and I think it’s noble for us to want to be as transparent as possible. My concern is that we’re just going to have the opposite effect of that. 

RL: But Commissioner Arroyo pushed back, saying the measure was all about improving transparency.

Erik Arroyo: I think it’s best to have a tool that your assistant can look up, the public can look up, that you can look up, instead of not having change at all, and this does not preclude the public. If you are not being compensated to come and lobby the city, you don’t have to register. If you are being compensated, you do. And I don’t think if you are being compensated, this ordinance is going to preclude you from lobbying the city. So I think nobody’s being precluded in this scenario and it’s a step in the right direction for our city so that we know who has been lobbied. We don’t know right now. Anybody could just meet with us, talk to us, that we have no idea who has an ulterior motive.

RL: In the end, Ahearn-Koch and Trice cast ‘nay’ votes on the measure. Fournier says he will probably have something to present to the city commission in a few months.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.


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