Massachusetts has toughened its lobbying law in recent years, but one big loophole remains: city government.
When lobbying on Beacon Hill, legislative agents have to register, list their clients, the issues they are working on, and if applicable, what executive agency they are lobbying. They must also disclose how much they were paid for those efforts. Those who employ lobbyists, meanwhile, must notify the secretary of state’s office that they have authorized someone to lobby on their behalf and report the amounts they have spent.
At the local level, however, there are few if any requirements. Take Boston, for example. If lobbying the city council, paid agents are required to file a letter with the city clerk “stating the nature of his or her business.” That means a brief letter saying whom they are lobbying for. But that’s the sum total of the requirements. There’s no disclosure required about how much an individual lobbyist has been paid or how much the interest employing a lobbyist has spent.
Further, there’s no requirement about lobbying city agencies, where important decisions are often made. That’s particularly problematic in Boston, where developers regularly hire well-connected politicos, whether erstwhile city councilors or former mayoral staffers, to help shepherd their projects through the process. During the last administration, retaining that kind of facilitator was considered vital to ensuring that a project had the best possible chance of winning favor from the mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
In a city where a building boom is underway, with tens of millions of dollars at stake, that’s far too opaque. We need more transparency, and not just in Boston but in municipalities across the state. That’s particularly true now that Massachusetts has entered the era of casino gambling.
Updating the state’s laws to include timely, detailed information about lobbying efforts at the municipal level should be a priority for the Legislature next year. In an era when citizens can get quick and easy access to Beacon Hill lobbying efforts online, paid efforts to influence city and town governments shouldn’t fall into an informational black hole.