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Lobbying & Transparency Act


The Sarasota City Commission is considering an ordinance to regulate political lobbying in city hall known as the “Lobbying & Transparency Act”.

When you say the words paid lobbyist, most of us think of Washington, D.C., or perhaps Tallahassee. We picture a person operating in the shadows whose job is to influence public officials on state or national issues. To protect the public interest, we expect our laws to reign in the power of lobbyists by requiring them to register before they go about their business. 
Perhaps we have been lauded into a false sense of security, believing the Florida Sunshine Law and quasi-judicial requirements for zoning deflect lobbying abuses on the local level. Some would say city and county government is too small for lobbying to be a problem. What happens at the local level has the most direct impact on our daily lives. 
There is a significant public interest in knowing whether paid lobbyists are unduly influencing locally elected officials or government employees. Clearly, openness in government is in the public interest.
There are 450 cities and counties in Florida with a formal lobbying process. 
The purpose of requiring lobbyists to register is to maintain a fair and open decision-making process and to bolster public trust. Paid lobbyists should be required to fully disclose their identities, the identities of their principals, their expenditures, and their lobbying activities. 
Lobbyist registration is needed for Manatee and Sarasota counties and municipalities to help discourage any possible conflict of interest concerning a public official, advisory board member, or government employee. Such an ordinance will help reduce the number and influence of private meetings between lobbyists and policymakers. 
Lobbyist registration will make it easier for the public to recognize any questionable connection between an elected official and any paid lobbyists. Paid lobbyists would have to disclose the identity of their clients, which could then be cross-referenced with campaign contributions.   
As government budgets shrink and staff is reduced, there is the likelihood that elected officials will tend to rely more on paid lobbyists for their information on issues of concern that can affect an entire community. It is difficult to have government in the Sunshine when paid lobbyists can remain anonymous and work behind closed doors to influence policy decisions. 
Manatee County has a diverse economy, including industry giants in phosphate mining, electric power generation, home building, agriculture, food production, and shipping.  Sarasota County's economic development is based largely on zoning and growth, tourism, housing, health care, and transportation.  All these industries have vast influence and clout in the legislative process. The resources available to the public simply cannot compare to those of large corporations.
Given the influence that industry has, it is difficult to understand why our local governments do not yet require lobbyists to register. This should have been done years ago. Both counties have procurement requirements prohibiting vendors from lobbying once a project goes out for bid. Would knowing what happens before the bidding not be in the public’s interest? It is impossible to know who's influencing whom without disclosure. 
Decisions made by city and county commissions can drastically change local communities and neighborhoods, impact property values and the environmental quality of land, and significantly increase the demand for public services.  Millions of dollars are spent by taxpayers on infrastructure. The public has the right to know who is influencing policy decisions and who is benefiting. 
Policy decisions involving land use and taxpayers’ expenditures have the potential to involve a myriad of opportunities for shady dealings. Disclosure of paid lobbyists would make the process more equitable so large corporations with deep money pockets would have less of an advantage over concerned members of the public. 
There is no reason to delay starting a community debate for consideration of such an ordinance. Objections will only raise the suspicion that somebody has something to hide.  The Sarasota City Commission should be commended for at least starting the discussion. 
Glenn Compton is the Chairman of ManaSota 88, a non-profit organization that has spent over 30 years fighting to protect the environment of Manatee and Sarasota counties.


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