Lobbyist Reform Needs to Go Further to Reduce City Hall Corruption

In response to a request by me and four of my colleagues, today the City Attorney is providing a proposal for a lobbyist registration process for the City of Dallas.

Right now, people who are paid to persuade city officials to vote a certain way on an issue are not required to register with the city or, more importantly, to disclose which officials they’re lobbying. We need to shed as much light on this process as possible and bring as much transparency to these interactions so we can reduce the likelihood of corruption and the appearance of impropriety.

The city attorney looked at other major Texas cities and the State of Texas for their lobbying registration process. For the most part, it’s a good proposal. But in several ways, it doesn’t go far enough.

The most important part of lobbyist registration is revealing which city official — councilmember, city board member, city staff member — the lobbyist met with on a particular issue, who was present, where they met, when they met, and for how long.  This needs to be disclosed within 48 hours of the meeting, to ensure that as the matter is considered by the council or city board, the public knows what’s happening behind closed doors before the issue is heard before the council or city board.

Under the current proposal, the lobbyist only has to provide a list of city officials he or she met with, and submit that to the City Secretary on a quarterly basis.  There’s no explanation of when or how often the lobbyist met with the councilmember (once or twenty times? for five minutes or two hours?), who was present at the meeting (a lobbyist staffer or an influential Dallasite?), where they met (city hall or The Mansion?), how often they met (once or twenty times?), or how long the meeting was (five minutes or two hours?). These are the types of disclosures that will make city hall more transparent and help reduce the likelihood of corruption.

There’s also a provision in the current proposal that limits lobbyists from giving city officials gifts with a cumulative value of more than $25. Why not simply prohibit gifts altogether? And why not restrict gifts not just from lobbyists but also their clients? If someone has an issue before the city, they don’t need to be giving gifts to councilmembers, city board members, or city staff.

Lastly, we need to prohibit people who work for the mayor or city council on campaign matters from also serving as lobbyists on issues that will be decided by the city council or a board appointed by the city council. There is too much opportunity for that campaign consultant to implicitly wield too much influence by virtue of their relationship with the mayor or councilmember. Jim Schutze explained it best in his article “Lesson learned from federal corruption trial: How to gain access to the portals of power at City Hall.”

We can create strong ethics rules that will reduce the likelihood of corruption and the appearance of impropriety at City Hall, but we’re going to have to go further than what was proposed today if it’s going to be more than window dressing.