Two years after Mayor Martin J. Walsh proposed what he called tough municipal lobbying laws, the City Council seems ready to tackle the issue — with its own draft.
But the versions are different enough to raise questions whether the two parties can reach an deal on any changes to the city’s minimal lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements.
The council version, introduced by Councilors Michelle Wu and Michael Flaherty, would create a lobbying registration system administered and enforced at the local level, with a minimal penalty for those who do not comply.
That proposal differs sharply from Walsh’s version, which mirrors state law and includes tougher punishments for violators. Walsh’s draft regulation, which needs state approval, has languished before the council for two years.
Already, Walsh has signaled his strong opposition to the council’s proposal.
“Mayor Walsh is concerned that the new proposal by the City Council is not as strong as what was originally filed by the mayor in 2016, as it contains broad exemptions and lacks some of the more important enforcement measures,” Laura Oggeri, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said in a statement. “We hope that the City Council is still willing to work on a policy that effectively addresses the issues of transparency in municipal lobbying.”
She would not say whether or not the mayor would veto the council’s version of the law.
Currently, the only reporting requirement of lobbyists is that they file a letter with the city clerk twice a year before being admitted to the council chamber to do business. As of January, only five letters were submitted this year by lobbyists or lobbying firms that broadly claimed to represent clients with business before the city.
Other major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have more stringent and detailed lobbying regulations.
Walsh first proposed reforms to city lobbying laws in 2016, following a Globe story that chronicled the close access that a Somerville lawyer, Sean T. O’Donovan – the former law partner of city corporation counsel Eugene L. O’Flaherty – had to administration members to pitch products sold by companies he represented. Walsh, while dismissing the notion that O’Donovan had any special access, said he was open to reforms to “make municipal lobbying efforts public for the first time in the city’s history.”
Walsh’s proposal, which was submitted to the council in 2016 and then again in 2017 after no action was taken, would be in the form of a home rule petition, which would necessitate state approval. It would call for lobbyists doing business with city departments or elected officials, as well as their clients, to register their work with the city twice a year. If lobbyists fail to follow the law, the measure calls for a fine up to $10,000 and the possibility of criminal prosecution, and would be enforced by an independent commission.
The council version that is slated to be introduced Wednesday includes similar reporting requirements, though lobbyists would need to file four times a year. The ordinance would be enforced by the city clerk, and would allow for a civil fine of up to $300 for those who do not comply. It would also create exemptions, for instance for any “persons engaged in the practice of law.”
City Clerk Maureen Feeney said her office is willing to assist in any effort to enact a lobbying registration system, but added, “I do have grave reservations about the clerk’s office adjudicating fines.”
Wu said that the new version was written so “it could be better tailored to city business, at the city level,” without the need for state approval.
“It tailors the definition of what is municipal lobbying a little better, it lays out what is lobbying and what is not,” Wu said in an interview, adding that the purpose of the ordinance is “really about disclosure and transparency.”
Flaherty said that he recognized that there has been a “diversity of opinions” among city officials as to what the final law should look like, and whether it should be a home rule petition or an ordinance.
But he said the new draft will allow the council to host a new set of hearings, beginning Monday, to examine the two proposals at once.
“There’s a lot of opinion on it, and I’m just trying to put the best product forward,” he said. “It could be a blended version.”
The council proposal raised questions among legal and ethics observers who pointed out the key difference between the two proposals, and whether there can be a compromise.
Walsh’s version would be tougher, but would need state approval, and the city has had mixed results getting the state to OK its home rule petitions.
Pam Wilmot, of Common Cause, a government watchdog organization, praised the council’s willingness to enact what she called thorough lobbying reporting requirements, but questioned if a $300 fine would be enough of a deterrent
Wilmot also took issue with a provision of the law that broadly exempts lawyers, saying the law should only exempt lawyers who are involved in litigation before a city board or commission.
Secretary of State William Galvin, who enforces lobbying laws at the state level, said the city should look to the state as a model, noting the system has undergone recent reforms “and has been effective.”
Galvin suggested that any true reform will need an enforcement mechanism to protect the integrity of the system. He has referred people who refused to register as lobbyists for criminal prosecution.
“You can’t be a scofflaw and stay in the lobbying business,” he said. “To make it meaningful, you have to do this kind of stuff.”
Galvin also noted the need to monitor lobbying work at all levels of government, including the local level, citing the recent battle over Airbnb regulations in City Hall that likely included heavy lobbying money.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.