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At the Dec. 3 City Council, Evanston resident Clare Kelly presented an overview of what a lobbying ordinance could look like for Evanston and where it is working elsewhere.
She said she feels a lobbying ordinance is necessary because “We want – and have the right – to know how officials are being influenced.” She explained that it has felt to her and many others that Council members are sometimes voting against their constituents and not giving a clear reason why – and that a lobbying ordinance would increase public confidence in City government. She said it would do this in part by ensuring minimal secrecy and ensuring that good government principles are in effect.
Ms. Kelly said that the work associated with an ordinance could be paid for through registration fees, fines and money saved because of fewer Freedom of Information Act requests and ethics hearings. She said in Chicago lobbyists are required to register – the cost is $350 – and to report any contact with government officials. Those who do not register and who have contact with City officials could end up paying up to $1,000 a day.
With some exceptions lobbying is generally a legal activity and an act of exercising the First Amendment right to petition the government. The goal of lobbying policies and ordinances is to ensure that those who would like to influence legislative or administration actions do so transparently, so that deals are not being cut that negatively impact communities while disproportionately benefiting select groups of people that have paid a lobbyist.
It is different when taxpayers are solely representing themselves, but even those who testify in public meetings in Chicago, for example, are required to identify themselves and disclose their purpose from a lobbying perspective.
Ms. Kelly said people in Evanston are feeling alienated from their elected officials, that they feel they are being disrespected and that carefully made decisions and recommendations of local groups and boards are disrespected and disregarded by the officials.
“This can be better. It helps to enhance transparency to have lobbying ordinances, which include things like a data base that tracks lobbying efforts. You put in the company’s name and find out who’s representing them,” said Ms. Kelly.
She said that she believes that active and advocating citizens have come to be seen as a nuisance in aldermen’s minds, and that the City Council wants to make decisions without citizen participation. “At least they’ve given off the impression that the citizens are a nuisance. You don’t lecture citizenry on how to behave – they love to use the word vitriol … They need to refocus,” said Ms. Kelly.
At more than one City Council meeting, however, aldermen have described personal attacks on them by phone, by email and in person by residents who disagreed with their positions.
Last week Ms. Kelly received an email from Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, indicating that she will recommend that Council include possibilities for a lobbying ordinance as a part of a review of ethics rules and regulations at the January Rules Committee meeting. Asked for comment about the issue Alderman Fiske cautioned that no specific policy is being pursued at this point in time, but rather a broad discussion on potential ethics policies will take place.