Once signed by Mayor Nutter, Bill No. 080661 will place Philadelphia in the company of other large American city’s with lobbyist registration processes. Like New York and Los Angeles before it, Philadelphia will begin requiring those engaged in lobbying activities to report to the city’s Board of Ethics. Responding in part to the Committee of Seventy’s “Ethics Reform Agenda”, the new ethics law seeks to minimize the semblance of ‘improper or undue’ influence on the city’s political process. The bill itself represents a successful multi-year lobbying effort on the part of the Committee of Seventy, who has played an integral role in the City of Philadelphia’s ethics reform. Up to now, no official record of lobbying activities was kept by the city. This left many guessing about the level of influence lobbyists have had over the city’s legislative efforts. As of July 1, when the law is expected to take effect, individuals will begin to be able to peek behind the curtain at what was once undisclosed activities.
What does the law change?
The law requires that all persons deemed a Principal or Lobbyist engaged in lobbying activity to register with city within 14 days of engaging in lobbying activity. The law defines a Principal as an individual or group on whose behalf an administrative or legislative action is being influenced. Whereas, a lobbyist is the individual or group who actively seeks to influence administrative or legislative action. In other words, a principal is one seeking to change a law in their favor, and a lobbyist is one that does the work of trying to create the change. Once registered, all registrants must submit quarterly expense reports of dollars spent on activities engaged in to influence Philadelphia city policies. The law includes the cost of engaging in direct or indirect communication; giving or providing gifts, entertainment, meals, transportation or lodging to anyone working as a city official or employee.
What constitutes administrative or legislative action?
Administrative actions are defined as those that involve the rules set by the city’s agencies. Alternatively, legislative actions are those involving the actions of City Council or the Mayor’s Office. The law requires not only reporting activities meant to affect the final outcome of a rule or legislation, but requires that one report any activities that seek to influence a change at any point along the process. Trying to influence the components of a bill, or its movement in committee would need to be reported just as well as lobbying for a vote on a bill in its final form.
What are the penalties for not registering or filing a quarterly report?
Anyone found to be in violation of the policy could be fined up to $2,000 per infraction and could face a three year ban on their lobbying activity. Unlike New York City’s lobbying law, Philadelphia’s policy does not include fines for improper filing. These provisions in NYC have been considered a deterrent to filing, which would be counter to the law’s goal of getting lobbyists to disclose their activities. Philadelphia does charge a $100 filing fee to all registrants. Not all communication or activities meant to impact city laws are considered lobbying under the statute. Comments published by journalists regarding a policy, an elected official or their staff speaking to other elected officials regarding a bill, and giving public testimony on a bill are among the list of activities that would not be considered lobbying under the new law.
Why should you care?
This law will create a system by which all citizens can become more aware of who is lobbying the city, and for what purpose. An increased level of transparency in city government will give those concerned about undue influence a way of allaying their anxieties. Things to look out for however are, who will register, and which activities will be disclosed over others. The law is clear that the activities reported must be intended to influence a policy. Will some lobbyists engage in activities that they claim are not intended to influence policy, but whose intent are clearly that. To help address this eventuality, a parallel proposal [Bill No. 080658] has been put forth to monitor all gifts to elected officials. Each of these sources of information will need to be reviewed regularly to identify any improprieties. Otherwise, it’s just paperwork.