The city of Charlotte will review whether it should require lobbyists to register with the city and disclose interactions with public officials – rules already enacted in most large U.S. cities.
The City Council recently approved changes to its ethics policy that include more financial disclosure for elected officials and guidelines on what gifts they can accept. The changes came in the wake of the Patrick Cannon scandal, in which the former mayor traded his influence for cash and gifts from undercover federal agents posing as developers.
But the council committee that reviewed the ethics changes didn’t discuss new rules for lobbyists. Most cities in the Carolinas have no such requirements, but they are common across the nation.
Charlotte – the nation’s 16th-largest city – is the biggest municipality with no lobbying registration requirements. It’s also common among smaller cities, such as Miami, Seattle and Jacksonville, Fla.
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Lobbyist registration is designed to give people more insight into who is meeting with public officials and what changes they are seeking.
San Antonio, Texas, for instance, requires lobbyists to list which city officials they have contacted on a quarterly basis.
Chicago requires lobbyists to list political contributions and gifts to elected officials. The city also requires lobbyists to list who they have met.
“Charlotte would be the first (city in the Carolinas) to bother with this,” said council member David Howard, who chairs the city’s Governance and Accountability Committee.
Lobbyists who work in Raleigh are required to register with the state.
Howard said Mayor Dan Clodfelter and council member John Autry asked that the issue be studied.
Clodfelter couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
Howard said the city attorney’s office will review how any registration requirement might work, but there is no timetable for discussing any changes. The city’s first priority is to consider enacting its recently passed ethics rules to city boards and committees.
Who’s a lobbyist?
If the city moves forward with a study, the most contentious issue will likely be who is and who isn’t a lobbyist.
Would a resident calling a council member about a pothole be required to register? What about the president of a homeowner association?
If Charlotte followed the Chicago rules, neither would be required to register.
In Chicago, the city defines a lobbyist as someone advocating a position for a third party. There are exceptions for nonprofit homeowner associations.
Under the Chicago system, a developer having lunch with an elected official would have to register because the developer would be representing a company – his or her own.
In some cities, businesses seeking contracts from a city often hire entrenched lobbyists to give them leverage when a decision is made. Those lobbyists then raise campaign donations for elected officials whom they favor.
Charlotte does not have a tradition of having a cadre of lobbyists.
Instead, developers and other business officials will meet elected officials and staff members directly to get support for their projects or causes. Under the definitions of lobbyists used by many cities, they would be required to register and possibly disclose who they meet.
In 2013, representatives from Duke Energy negotiated with city staff – without the public’s knowledge – about using Charlotte Douglas International Airport as a place to store coal ash.
If the city had lobbyist disclosure forms, those meetings might have been reported.