Lobbyists have long operated with minimal scrutiny in Boston City Hall, leaving scant evidence of their efforts to influence city policy for the benefit of their clients.
Now, in a significant shift, Mayor Martin J. Walsh says he will propose regulations for municipal lobbyists that could for the first time require public disclosure of their efforts to influence development, city contracts, and permits. It is a step many major cities have already taken to bring municipal lobbying into the sunshine.
Walsh’s announcement comes a week after the Globe reported how a childhood friend and former law partner of the city’s top lawyer leveraged his personal relationships for friendly introductions and access to key administration officials.
“If you came into this building and you’re representing anybody — whether it’s McDonald’s or CVS or a developer — you’re going to have to register as a lobbyist to do business,” Walsh said.
Walsh, who first outlined his proposal to Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham, said it will be modeled on state lobbying laws, which require lobbyists to disclose their clients, the matters on which they are lobbying, and their compensation.
“It would be open and transparent so people would know who is representing whom on what matters,” Walsh said. He will file his plans in February, he said.
The mayor’s proposal would be a significant change at Government Center, potentially helping Boston catch up with cities such as Chicago, San Jose, and New York, and even small municipalities such as Sunrise, Fla., where interactions between lobbyists and government officials are disclosed in a searchable database.
Walsh said he would propose his lobbying regulations as a home rule petition, a change in law that must be approved by the City Council and passed by the state Legislature.
The mayor said he cannot impose municipal lobbying regulations with an executive order or city ordinance if the initiative includes fines for lack of compliance and covers quasi-public agencies such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
But sending the proposal to Beacon Hill could make it more difficult to get the rules in place. Walsh said he planned to call the legislative leadership to tell them “it’s my wish to get this thing passed through session this term.”
City Council President Michelle Wu said she supports the mayor’s efforts to “increase transparency around who is interacting with city decision makers and what financial benefits are involved.”
Less than three weeks ago, the mayor had dismissed the idea of pushing for lobbying regulations at City Hall, during a Globe interview on Dec. 22. “The city’s been around since 1630,” he said. “I don’t know if all of a sudden if this rule falls on the Walsh administration.”
His change of heart follows a Globe story published Jan. 3 that was based largely on e-mail communication between Walsh officials and Sean T. O’Donovan, a Somerville lawyer and former law partner of city corporation counsel Eugene L. O’Flaherty.
The e-mails, acquired by the Globe through public records requests, showed how members of the administration had accommodated O’Donovan and helped him get meetings with other city officials to pitch products sold by companies he represented.
Walsh told Abraham that he was originally cool to the idea of new lobbying rules because the public records law already requires the city to release records that would reveal lobbying contacts, such as the e-mails the Globe used for its story.
But that way isn’t easy: reporters had to spend more than six weeks digging through thousands of files and pay hundreds of dollars to obtain records.
Walsh said that after the interview about lobbying with Globe reporters last month, he warmed to the idea as a way to avoid the perception of conflicts of interest.
Secretary of State William Galvin said rules requiring lobbyists to disclose their activities would improve public trust, especially around city development.
“There has been a perception — accurate or inaccurate — that insiders have taken advantage to get their projects approved,” Galvin said. “If there was more awareness of who’s representing who, it would build confidence in the public.”
Galvin said he would still prefer a statewide law requiring lobbyists to disclose their activities in every municipality.
In Boston, the City Council has an obscure rule that requires lobbyists to file a letter with the city clerk before being admitted to the council chamber.
But the rule is largely ineffective — only 10 letters have been filed in the last two years — and it focuses only on interactions that physically take place within the chamber.
One firm that filed a letter with the city clerk was Serlin Haley, whose motto is “representing business before government.”
State records show the firm collected nearly $600,000 for lobbying state agencies in 2015 on behalf of clients that ranged from Facebook to Dunkin’ Donuts to the conservative activist Koch brothers. At City Hall, however, Serlin Haley did not disclose its clients or fees.
“We don’t speak to people about our representation,” said Susan M. Tevnan, the company’s chief operating officer, before hanging up on a reporter.
Lobbyists operating at City Hall advocate for their clients in much the same way they do on Beacon Hill, said Jackson C. Hall, who worked as a City Council aide in the 1980s and now runs the firm Political Advantage. Hall registered last year with the city clerk and is proud of his work as a lobbyist. He urged the city to require more disclosure.
“Voters are entitled to know who is lobbying for what,” said Hall, whose clients include the Massachusetts Home Care Association and Lesley University. “People spend a lot of money on it. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. And it’s a growing profession.”
Municipal lobbying rules are inconsistent across the United States, according to reports from the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit government watchdog that tracks lobbying. Chicago appears to have among the strongest lobbying disclosure practices.
Data is available online, allowing taxpayers with a few clicks to easily get at least a bare-bones sense of the encounter between politician and lobbyist. It lists the lobbyists’ names, who hired them, who they lobbied, and a short description of what the lobbyists were trying to achieve.
Bringing lobbying activities into the light helps to limit their influence, said former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed, who was in office when San Jose instituted lobbyist disclosure requirements in 2007.
“It’s really important for people to be able to follow the money — that’s the first principle,” said Reed, who served from 2007 to 2014.
In addition to requiring lobbyists to register and to file quarterly reports of their activities, San Jose also requires public officials to disclose their contacts with lobbyists before taking action on any matter on which they had been lobbied.
The officials make these declarations out loud at public meetings, and identify the lobbyists with whom they had contact, the dates of the contacts, and the subject matter, Reed said.
“It makes people a little uncomfortable but they get used to it,” he said.
San Jose’s lobbying rules were part of a vast package of open government reforms, which Reed said improved public confidence in government.
“All kinds of bad things can happen when things are done in secret,” he said. “Get things out into the open. Lots of things just don’t happen now because councilors know it will be public. You can’t keep it a secret, so don’t do something stupid.”
Other cities where municipal lobbying is already regulated include Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Jacksonville, and San Francisco.