Are Boston’s new lobbying rules too broad?
A group of lobbyists, businesses, and nonprofits are concerned new lobbying regulations in Boston are overly broad and could “chill civic engagement,” according to a letter sent recently to city officials.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, and Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association are among the organizations that signed the July 15 letter. The rules, which went into effect in April, would mean “hundreds of individuals will face registration and reporting burdens for activities that are not traditionally considered lobbying as they go about their normal course of business,” they wrote.
“Furthermore, we are concerned that the Ordinance as written could chill civic engagement,” read the letter.
The group provided city officials with a legal analysis prepared by the law firm Foley Hoag that highlighted their concerns and provided “examples of how certain sections could create barriers and burdens to participation in government.” The analysis also proposed new language for amendments to the law.
Under the ordinance, “many individuals participating in a single meeting or phone call would be required to register as a lobbyist, submit disclosure reports, and pay a registration fee,” according to the analysis.
The law also counts communications with “line-level city employees, many of whom lack executive decision-making authority or the authority to influence policy,” as lobbying, according to the analysis.
The memo also argued that the law’s registration and reporting requirements “will create a significant administrative barrier that may discourage some individuals, including undocumented immigrants, from seeking assistance from a not-for-profit entity.”
Scientists, engineers, and other technical experts will have to register as lobbyists for taking part in meetings “in which their role is to provide factual information and technical analysis to city officials,” the memo said.
The new law marked the first time in the city’s history that anyone attempting to do business with the City Council or the mayor’s administration is required to register their work at the city clerk’s office as lobbyists.
Members of a commission charged with enforcing the ordinance acknowledged receipt of the letter.
Maureen Feeney, the Boston city clerk, thought the letter “formalizes the concerns of many people who are trying to work within the framework.”
“We don’t want people to be in violation,” she said.
Sammy Nabulsi, the commission chairman, called the letter informative, but added that he does not consider it the commission’s job to change the ordinance.
“We’re going to stay in our lane,” he said. “We have an ordinance, we need to create regulations to interpret this ordinance.”
He said his goal is to have a final set of regulations in place by the end of the year.
Since the ordinance took effect, more than 390 lobbyists, firms, and their clients have registered with the city, according to an online database. Among them are former House speakers Thomas Finneran and Salvatore F. DiMasi, former Suffolk district attorney Daniel F. Conley, and fast-food restaurant Chick-fil-A. Six of the 18 groups that signed onto the letter are registered on the city’s municipal lobbying database.
The ordinance was years in the making, and represented a compromise between Mayor Martin J. Walsh and city councilors amid concerns that the city had no mechanism to regulate lobbyists in City Hall.
Before the ordinance, the only requirement for anyone doing business with the council was to file a letter with the clerk’s office, but that rule was not enforced and was rarely followed.
Walsh’s office did not comment for this story, instead deferring to city councilors.
Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell said in an e-mail on Thursday that she looks forward to reviewing the letter and discussing it with the lobbying commission to “assess whether changes are needed.”
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said she has not heard “directly from anyone who feels that their ability to interact with me has been chilled.”
“I haven’t seen that, but I do think it’s important to pay attention, to make sure that organizations that are doing great work within our communities feel they can actively and thoughtfully interact with me as an elected official,” she said.