City Hall promised lobbying reform. Nothing happened.
It was billed as a step toward transparency: tough new rules that would shine a light on how lobbyists work to sway decisions at City Hall.
But a year after Mayor Martin J. Walsh promised that regulations governing municipal lobbyists would be a priority, no plan has been approved. Since February, the initiative has sat untouched in a City Council committee without a hearing.
The mayor and City Council leaders may have said they supported new lobbying regulations, but it appears none of them made an effective effort to follow through.
That means corporations and interest groups continue to employ lobbyists to quietly influence city government with practically no public scrutiny.
“I have prioritized bringing openness to city government and am proud to have filed a proposal that will make municipal lobbying efforts public for the first time in the city’s history,” Walsh said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with . . . the City Council to ensure that this proposal is before the Massachusetts Legislature early in the new session.”
Unlike many prominent US cities, Boston demands little disclosure from lobbyists. An obscure City Council rule directs lobbyists to file a letter with the city clerk before being admitted to the council chamber, but typically only a handful of people file letters each year. The rule focuses only on interactions within the chamber.
Cities that regulate municipal lobbying include: Los Angeles; Chicago; Houston; Philadelphia; Phoenix; San Antonio; San Diego; Dallas; San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; and San Francisco.
Walsh proposed lobbying rules early in 2016 that would force lobbyists to register and file reports describing their efforts to influence decisions and policy at City Hall.
If approved, the plan would require municipal lobbyists 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.
It would also require lobbyists to report the pay they received from clients, as well as the dates of “lobbying communications” with public officials.
The regulations were filed as a home-rule petition, meaning the plan needs approval from both the City Council and the state Legislature. Walsh had said he intended to make the new rules a priority in 2016, and call State House leadership to tell them “it’s my wish to get this thing passed through session this term.”
But the proposal never made it to the State House, because the City Council never took it up. The Legislature’s formal session ended July 31.
The proposed new rules were referred to the City Council’s Government Operations Committee on Feb. 3. The committee is supposed to coordinate with the administration to schedule a public hearing. That did not happen, according to the committee’s chairman, Councilor Michael Flaherty, because he said he never heard from the mayor’s staff about setting a time.
“As soon as the administration gets me some dates, I will work with them on scheduling a hearing,” Flaherty said, adding. “This is a well-intended and necessary proposal that will help bring about more transparency to the public process. But it has not been the most important issue that we have dealt with this year.”
It was Walsh who promised to make new lobbying regulations a priority, but the City Council could have also taken the initiative and moved the measure forward.
In January, when Walsh proposed regulations, City Council president Michelle Wu also said she backed the efforts to “increase transparency around who is interacting with city decision makers and what financial benefits are involved.” Wu, in an interview Dec. 30, said she favors taking up the proposal early in 2017.
“The more transparency in government, the better,” she said.
Walsh pledged to introduce lobbying rules after a Globe story about Sean T. O’Donovan, a Somerville lawyer and the former law partner of city corporation counsel Eugene L. O’Flaherty. The story was based on city e-mails acquired under the public records law, which showed how members of the administration had helped O’Donovan get meetings with other city officials to pitch products sold by companies he represented.
Last January, Walsh promised to propose a lobbyist registry modeled after a similar registry for state lobbyists, which is maintained by the secretary of state.
“It’s a different world today,’’ he said in an interview. “People expect more transparency and openness.’’