Oakland’s lobbying law, which was supposed to shine a light on backdoor dealing, has been a disappointment from the start. The law, for example, has never required private entities, including big corporations and organized labor, to declare how much they’ve spent trying to influence politicians and/or legislation. And unlike other cities, Oakland has no lobbyist registration fee, even though taxpayers spend thousands of dollars each year in city staff time keeping track of lobbying in Oakland. And now, several political leaders in the city want to further water-down the already weak law by exempting many lobbyists from disclosing any of their activities.
Late last week, the city council’s rules committee approved a proposal from Councilwoman Jane Brunner that could result in up to half of the currently active lobbyists in Oakland not having to disclose who they lobby and for whom they work. Brunner’s proposal came in response to a recommendation from the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which proposed a $180 year fee on lobbyists, along with a rewrite of city law to more narrowly define who is a lobbyist and who isn’t.
There is little argument that Oakland's lobbying law is overly broad. For instance, it appears to require members of the public to register as lobbyists whenever they attempt to influence an elected official or legislation (although it should be noted that the law has never been applied in this manner). But Brunner, some councilmembers, and organized labor in Oakland are using the overbroad argument as a reason to narrow the list of registered lobbyists in the city to exclude numerous people who are paid to lobby politicians.
On the surface, Brunner’s plan sounds innocuous. It would change the city’s definition of a lobbyist to match that of the state. Under her proposal, a so-called "contract" lobbyist — someone hired specifically to lobby — can keep his lobbying secret as a long he’s paid no more than $2,000 in any given month (up from the current $1,000). In addition, so-called "in-house" lobbyists — employees of companies or unions who lobby politicians — can keep their lobbying under wraps as long as it represents no more than one-third of their job duties. Brunner, a longtime labor lawyer, contends that this new definition works for the state, so it should work for Oakland, too.
However, unlike state law, Brunner’s proposal does not require private entities to disclose how much they spend on lobbying in the city, nor does it include a lobbyist registration fee to cover costs. And Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who opposes Brunner’s proposal and has submitted a plan that more closely resembles the recommendation from the Public Ethics Commission, argues that the new definition for in-house lobbyists will exempt all of the current ones from having to disclose anything. “In my twelve years of work in the City of Oakland, I don’t know of anyone who meets that definition,” she said of the requirement that one-third of an employee’s work be dedicated to lobbying.
Brunner’s proposal is scheduled to go before the full council next week. But its prospects are uncertain. At last week’s committee hearing, Councilmen Larry Reid and Ignacio De La Fuente voted for it. And sources said that Councilwoman Desley Brooks may also back it. But Brunner needs five votes for her proposal to become law. And Schaaf and Councilwomen Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan are expected to vote against it. That leaves Rebecca Kaplan, who won’t be at next week’s meeting. Her absence means that Brunner’s proposal probably won’t be enacted next week, but it could be at a later date if Kaplan decides to support it. And even if she doesn’t, Brunner’s plan could still become law if Mayor Quan, who also has close ties to labor, provides the deciding vote.