Oakland's top lobbyist, Carlos Plazola, is under investigation by the city's Public Ethics Commission for allegedly lobbying public officials repeatedly over the past year and not reporting it as required by law. The investigation stems from two ethics complaints involving the former staff member for Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. The first alleges that Plazola conducted an illegal secret meeting in September with De La Fuente and two other councilmembers and then failed to report it as lobbying, while the second claims that Plazola repeatedly lobbied councilmembers and other city officials in the past several months on at least four different issues without disclosing it.
The evidence against Plazola appears convincing, but the ethics complaints and his response so far to them also raise numerous questions about the city's lobbying law and who should be registering as a lobbyist. In fact, a simple analysis of the law reveals that dozens of people who regularly attempt to influence the decisions of Oakland city officials should be registering as lobbyists and are not. In short, Plazola appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.
The first ethics complaint was filed by City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, and originally focused on whether Plazola's September 12 closed-door sit-down with De La Fuente, Larry Reid, and Henry Chang violated both Oakland's and California's open meeting laws. But while investigating the complaint, Public Ethics Commission Executive Director Dan Purnell and Deputy City Attorney Mark Morodomi started raising questions about whether the private meeting also involved lobbying as defined under Oakland law. Purnell noted at a Public Ethics Commission meeting earlier this month that Plazola, a registered lobbyist in Oakland who represents developers, did not report the closed-door meeting with the council members as lobbying. Under city law, all lobbying activities must be disclosed to the public ethics commission.
The second complaint, meanwhile, was filed last week by local activist John Klein. He provided extensive, documented evidence that Plazola lobbied to stop Mayor Ron Dellums' appointment of Ada Chan to the Oakland Planning Commission, lobbied to oust acting City Administrator Dan Lindheim, lobbied to extend city deadlines for developers to complete construction projects, and lobbied against building height limits in downtown and along Lake Merritt. Plazola's lobbying clients include the developer of a proposed 42-story condo tower on the lake that Klein and other activists oppose. "It's OK to lobby," Klein said of Plazola's activities. "Just be upfront about it."
So is Plazola purposely attempting to hide his contacts with Oakland politicians? In response to the concerns raised by Purnell, Plazola and his friend, Oakland attorney Jenny Kassan, have argued that he did not have to disclose the private meeting with council members because at the time he was representing not his lobbying clients but the Oakland Builders Alliance, a nonprofit trade group he co-founded and chairs. "As you know, I have no problem registering as a lobbyist, as I have done consistently in the past, when it is clear I am engaging in lobbying activities on behalf of clients," Plazola wrote in an e-mail to Full Disclosure.
Plazola and his wife Monica Molina Plazola also have claimed that the closed-door meeting did not constitute lobbying, because he was not seeking a financial benefit for himself or members of the builders alliance, a group of about 75 small- and medium-size developers, construction companies, and architects. "The basis of the lobbying ordinance should be to regulate an individual that attempts to influence decision makers for the direct, or indirect, benefit of a client or organization," Monica Plazola argued in a letter to Purnell and Morodomi. Purnell said in a commission report that Carlos Plazola claimed his September 12 closed-door meeting wasn't lobbying because during his presentation to councilmembers, he made it clear that members of the builders alliance "expect nothing in return."
But Plazola's arguments about why he shouldn't have to report his lobbying activity on behalf of the builders alliance don't hold up under scrutiny. The same can't be said, however, about his contention that if the ethics commission rules against him, then other members of nonprofits in Oakland also should be required to report their contacts with city officials. That assertion appears to have merit.
The reason is that the city's lobbying law is about open government and transparency. That is, the public has a right to know when a person representing a corporation or organization meets with city decision makers and attempts to convince them to vote a certain way on a pending issue. That way, the public gains insight into how governmental decisions are made and who influences them. It's about full disclosure, cracking open the door to backroom deals.
As a result, the authors of the law wrote it broadly to include all kinds of communication with city officials. Under the ordinance, a lobbyist isn't just the traditional hired gun who buttonholes politicians in a city hall doorway. It also includes anyone whose "duties as a salaried employee, officer or director of any corporation, organization, or association include communication directly or through agents with any public official, officer or designated employee, for the purpose of influencing any proposed or pending governmental action of the city." In other words, the members of nonprofit groups are no different than corporate employees and hired guns when they try to influence a politicians' vote or a bureaucrats' decision. They're all lobbyists.
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