• Daniel Wolk
    OCT 01, 2021

    City Council should tighten lobbying rules to lower barriers to constituent advocacy, alderman says

    Ald. Michele Smith (43) said she plans to introduce an ordinance to further clarify the city's lobbying definition so ordinary citizens don't inadvertently cross ethics rules. [Colin Boyle/Block Club]

    A key alderman on Thursday urged a revision in Chicago’s rules on lobbyist registration, saying the current definition of “lobbyist” could put a damper on small businesses soliciting help from their representatives in the City Council.

    The discussion surfaced as Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, gave an update during the city’s budget hearing on his board’s progress in curtailing ethics misconduct in Chicago. 

    Berlin’s staff devotes the bulk of its staff time to prevention of such misconduct through education and providing “advisories,” most of them confidential. As for enforcement of the City’s Governmental Ethics Ordinance, Berlin updated aldermen on violations the board had adjudicated, including conflicts of interest and lobbyists who failed to register on time.

    But multiple aldermen spoke up to air concerns about the city’s legal standards for who qualifies as a lobbyist.

    Ald. Michele Smith (43), the chair of City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, argued that City Council needed to change the rule about lobbying to make sure that business owners who “come to us in order to secure an inspection or get ComEd to turn on the lights,” do not have to register as lobbyists.

    “When a constituent has a business in your ward and comes to ask for help, are they being a lobbyist?” Smith asked

    Berlin explained that if a business owner seeks help “on their own behalf” then that does not make them a lobbyist. If, however, a business person seeks administrative help “on behalf of a business separately incorporated, such as a corporation or LLC, then yes, they are in all likelihood lobbying.”

    Berlin noted in his opening statement that “by law all individuals who lobby city personnel must register with the Board annually,” and pay a $350 annual registration fee, adding that “the Board waives fees for individuals lobbying on behalf of nonprofits.” 

    Berlin gave credence to Smith’s suggestion to reform rules regarding lobbyists. He explained that around the country, there is “serious talk” about establishing “thresholds," and some jurisdictions have already established them. As he put it, with thresholds, only when a lobbyist makes “X amount of money, or X hours would they have to register.” He said this could be one way of preventing the problem of citizens fearing the hassle and expense in the situations that Smith spoke of.

    The city’s definitions of lobbying have been a source of contention since at least 2019, when the City Council passed an ordinance (SO2019-5305) requiring nonprofit advocates to apply with the city as lobbyists. The ordinance’s effective date was delayed multiple times amid pushback and confusion from nonprofit groups.

    Related: ‘Grassroots’ groups won't have to register as lobbyists: Ethics Board

    Besides Smith, Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30), Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11), Ald. Raymond Lopez (15), Ald. Pat Dowell (3), and Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33) all asked questions about exactly who would qualify as a lobbyist. 

    Berlin explained that the amended Governmental Ethics Ordinance is precise in its definition that in order to be a lobbyist, there has to be “some direct communication” to an elected official on behalf of another entity.

    If someone is trying to influence administrative officials, it is lobbying “only if you represent another person or group — if you do it only for yourself, no, it is not lobbying,” he said. There are exceptions, he continued, such as when as “an attorney, you represent clients in public adversarial hearings.” 

    As the board has made clear in its formal advisories on this matter (20003.A and 20009.A), there are a great many tricky situations in which it is difficult to determine if a person qualifies as a lobbyist or not. Concluding his attempt to explain who qualifies as a lobbyist, Berlin quipped, “The short answer is that there is no short answer.”

    Rodriguez-Sanchez said some of her constituents have been hurt by the current definition of “lobbyist.” For her it is “a question of access,” she said.

    With the rules about lobbyists so confusing, she worried that some "disenfranchised" people are put at a disadvantage because it is difficult for them to learn the rules. They sometimes think that it is a problem to be lobbyists.

    “What about putting the rules in aldermanic offices, so people can self-screen?" Rodriguez-Sanchez asked. "More education is needed, especially with disenfranchised populations, so they can file complaints. What can we do to make such information in our offices more accessible?”

    Berlin agreed that  Rodriguez-Sanchez “asked a great question and made great points.”  He noted that being a lobbyist is a constitutional right in the United States, saying no alderman or person in a position of power should refuse to meet with a person because they are a lobbyist.

    Once the state's new ethics law is "settled," he explained, “We will put out bi- and trilingual guides, and have them register as lobbyists or give us contact information.”

    Thompson was one of those who wondered about the rules regarding lobbyists for nonprofit organizations. Following up on a detail in Berlin’s statement that lobbyists for nonprofits do not have to pay the $350 fee to register, Thompson asked whether that applied to huge, wealthy nonprofits, such as the Northwestern Medical Center.  Yes indeed they do, replied Berlin.

    The topic of the Board of Ethics budget for 2022 — the ostensible purpose of the hearing on Thursday — stirred up no controversy whatsoever. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) said that it amounted to nothing more than a “cost-of-living increase.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed budget calls for a modest increase in the Board of Ethics’ budget from about $870,000 to about $920,000, virtually all of it in the form of raises for the board’s eight employees. 

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