Boston residents may soon be able to track the long-hidden efforts of municipal lobbyists under a proposal by Mayor Martin J. Walsh that would force city lobbyists to register and publicly report their efforts to influence public policy at City Hall.
"We're the biggest city in Massachusetts and these rules are going to cover a lot of people," Walsh said in a Globe interview. "This will speak to transparency, about who is working with whom in the city of Boston. I don't see the downside of having people who want to be legislative agents register."
The mayor filed the proposed rules earlier this month as a home rule petition, which requires approval by the City Council and then the state Legislature. The proposal is based on existing lobbying rules for state government, Walsh said. He wants to get it through the Legislature this session, he said.
If the plan wins approval, municipal lobbyists in Boston would be required to file reports twice a year declaring their campaign contributions, the names of their clients, the legislation or policy decisions they had tried to influence, and the political positions for which they advocated, according to a copy of the proposal.
Lobbyists would also be required to report the pay they received from each lobbying client, as well as the dates of "lobbying communications" with public officials, which would include in-person conversations, calls, e-mails, letters, faxes, and "other direct means" of communicating.
Unlike many prominent US cities, Boston lacks substantial rules to allow the public to follow the work of city lobbyists.
"Municipal lobbying has been an area lacking transparency under the law," said Pam Wilmot, director of the nonprofit government watchdog Common Cause Massachusetts. "That leaves a lot of political spending in the dark and that's not where it should be."
A plan to shine light on municipal lobbying is "certainly a step in the right direction," Wilmot said Wednesday, before she had the opportunity to review the details of the proposal.
City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty Jr. agreed it is time to bring municipal lobbying out of the shadows: "Let's eliminate the hocus-pocus that used to permeate every corner of City Hall, where projects and petitions lived or died on who you knew and who you hired," he said.
The proposal would authorize the city to create a three-member commission to enforce the rules. The commissioners, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, would serve three-year terms.
Defying the law could result in suspension or revocation of a lobbyist's registration, as well as a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation, according to the proposal. The proposal also allows for criminal prosecution by the attorney general.
The new rules were filed with the City Council, and were referred to the council's Government Operations Committee on Feb. 3. The council will coordinate with the administration to schedule a public hearing and hold a vote, according to Flaherty, the committee's chairman.
Flaherty said Walsh "inherited a building and culture where it was very hard to transact the simplest of business, particularly if you were not politically connected."
The lobbying rules are "one step in curing that culture, but it has to be done hand-in-hand with making City Hall a more customer service-orientated building," Flaherty said. "No more blurred lines.
"People need to disclose who they are advocating for, what they are advocating for, and who they are advocating to," he said.
Walsh last month promised to draft rules for city lobbyists after the Globe reported that a childhood friend and former law partner of the city's top lawyer had quietly become a go-to person for companies that want something from the Walsh administration.
The mayor has said he cannot impose the regulations through an executive order or city ordinance — but must take the more arduous route of going through the Legislature — because the initiative includes fines for lack of compliance.
Boston has historically demanded very little disclosure from lobbyists. An obscure City Council rule requires lobbyists to file a letter with the city clerk before being admitted to the council chamber, but the rule does little to allow the public to track the activities of lobbyists.
Just 10 letters have been filed in the last two years, and the rule focuses only on interactions within the chamber.
More substantial rules would potentially help Boston catch up with other US cities that regulate municipal lobbying, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Jacksonville, and San Francisco.