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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Sign 'em up

New Portland city commissioner Sam Adams is championing a great idea -- requiring people who lobby city government to register and report whom they're lobbying, when, and for how much. The quarterly reports from such folks would promptly be posted on the internet.

The time for this kind of regulation has surely come. The city's recent adoption of a fast-posting regime for municipal campaign contribution reports has opened many an eye to the millions being spent each year trying to pull the strings on the Council. Lifting the blinds and letting the same kind of daylight shine on the lobbyists is another welcome move for more open, more accountable government. All local agencies -- especially loosely regulated pork barrels like the PDC, Tri-Met, and OHSU -- should rapidly follow suit.

Metro already has a lobbyist registration system. The current list is here. But Adams's proposal would apparently take a slightly different approach, airing the specifics of amounts spent and commissioners entertained.

Leave it to consummate lobbyist and long-time Goldschmidt pal Len Bergstein to try to put a spin on the Adams proposal:

[Bergstein] does, however, want any new city disclosure laws to cut both ways. For example, he thinks commissioners should disclose anytime they ask for donations to city initiatives or political campaigns from lobbyists and companies that lobby.

Bergstein also thinks people who don't get paid for their work but essentially spend all their time advocating causes or issues should be included, whether as part of a lobbyist list or some other kind of public registration.

"If the idea is to show the public the kinds of conversations that go on, I'll be the first one to sign up," he said. "But what's good for the goose is good for the gander, you know. If you're intending to spend a large amount of time testifying before council and talking to council members, you probably should have to let the world know what you're doing."

What a weasel.

Commissioner Adams, you are off to a great start. But why not do more? Why not prohibit city officials from accepting meals, gifts, and entertainment from lobbyists at all?

Which brings me back to the other big government reform proposal floating around the Council: the plan to adopt public financing of municipal campaigns, to be paid out of the city's general tax revenues, to the tune of an estimated $1.3 million a year. Why don't we see how the Adams plan, and the relatively new posting of the campaign contribution disclosure reports, work before we commit to "clean money"?

At 5 percent interest, the present value of $1.3 million a year in perpetuity is $26 million. Why not see if more modest moves, such as the lobbyist disclosures, can get local government to the minimum level of cleanliness that we need?

Comments (15)

Agree 100%


Came across your blog today. Great stuff. Agree with you that college football should adopt a Final Four (or an Elite Eight).

Noticed you are a college sports fan. Hoping you could kindly add a blogroll link to my College Basketball Blog, I'd greatly appreciate a permanent link on your site.

And would gladly return the favor, adding a link from my site to yours.


Yoni Cohen, College Basketball Blog

Agree, Jack. I think the more openness the better. I do agree with with Adams on including the hobbyist lobbyists too.

I think this along with Don McIntire's proposal to publish a listing of annual expenditures in Salem would be great.

I prefer that as much government business as possible be conducted in the daylight. I would even like to see so-called "executive" sessions curtailed. There is entirely too much wheeling and dealing going on in those sessions. If it doesn't involve privacy, (that would be personal privacy of constituents, not politicians), criminal investigations or national security, I would like to know what every politician is doing at all times. They're politicians and can't be trusted.

John, there you go again, agreeing with a pinko. Happy New Year, guy.

For whatever it's worth, I'm not sure that when it comes to City Council at least that there are all that many executive sessions. I know, though, that the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners seems to have them rather regularly -- the only one I ever intended being mainly about legal settlement issues.

Why the focus on the speaker rather that the words that are spoken? I really do not care whether someone spends a million dollars or zero dollars to communicate a point or argument, for the money neither adds nor detracts from the argument.

I do not even need to know the identity of the speaker. Some people try to add value to the words in the bible by claiming that it is the literal word of god rather than the words of mere humans. So what!

Are you assuming that your fellow citizens are incapable of reason, and that their reasoning must be informed by knowledge of how much was spent to speak and who spoke the words?

One remedy is to keep all contacts between public officials (and their staff) and the public open to scrutiny. I would find *access* to the words spoken far more useful than the useless knowledge that person X paid Y to lobby without also knowing to whom they spoke and what was spoken. Publicizing a list of donations and expenditures is a piss poor substitute method to maintain government accountability; particularly when confidentiality can be purchased through generic disclosure of amounts raised and spent lobbying. The Hobbyist pest cannot afford the price (red tape) of maintaining records with scrupulously updated data so as to avoid the prosecutorial discretion of politicians.

Lets jump one level out in the analysis. The Reagan administration aided and supported a scheme in El Salvador that financially rewarded tattle tales on folks who harbored negative thoughts about the government. (Somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 of the population.) Our current Bush administration likes the idea of citizen spies and tried to force police and anyone else employed in government to report bad folks to the security folks. What is a bad guy . . . well that is really an open and highly subjective determination. The campaign finance stuff (and lobbyist stuff), particularly when applied to hobbyist whiners, is a tool to tattle tale about useless dollar stuff when the meat is the words and deals (logrolling) that we never hear in public. It is of a character that does little more than empower the government to find almost anything, even technical grounds, upon which to silence outspoken critics of government scoundrels and their private allies.

If you would call for The Oregonian to face a common set of rules regarding lobbying then I'd be all for it, but only to the extent that such rules are lawfully applicable to The Oregonian, consistent with sweeping First Amendment protections that a universally guarded by the US Supreme Court justices from all political stripes, and no further.

The witch hunt mentality is a dangerous thing. The Ergot (natural LSD) problem here is the apparent euphoria associated with the belief that mandating disclosure on spending, alone, answers all political ills and thus we can suspend the search for a fuller explanation. The real crooks can violate every law except the campaign finance and lobbying laws all day long.

I know that the PERB and the PPS both have had plenty of Executive Sessions in the recent past. If Portland has escaped the need for frequent Executive Sessions then I guess that not enough people are pointing an accusatory finger at them.

I really do not care whether someone spends a million dollars or zero dollars to communicate a point or argument, for the money neither adds nor detracts from the argument.

Point not well taken. I seem to remember something about "all men are created equal," but the folks who pay millions to guys like Bergstein are a lot more equal than the working person who takes personal time out to call a city council member to complain about bad treatment from a city bureau.

It's the money that corrupts the process, and it's the money that needs to be closely monitored.

The spin that conversations "for free" should reported the same as conversations "for cash" is pretty ludicrous. I think the reporting proposal is a great one, but I'd like to see a "what" added to the list of "who, when, how much." For what purpose were they spending the money?

I would rather see Internet posting of transcripts of the conversations, or the lively audio itself, than the useless knowledge that it took place at a McDonalds near you rather than at an all expense paid trip to Black Butte. Suppose we had a direct link to the Email of the Gov, updated no less often than weekly. I kind of like the Banter of the British and the Brawls of the Japanese better than the conspiracy of silence that has become routine in our public discussion forums where genuine debate is supposed to take place.

“ 'If the idea is to show the public the kinds of conversations that go on, I'll be the first one to sign up,' he said.”

How about taking him at his word and demand open emails and perhaps demand recording of all conversations of the politicians with all constituents. Visualize every politician living in a Truman (the movie) like setting where the whole world gets to secretly watch your every move and conversation.

Let us not forget the mantra, at the federal level, that contributions are used solely to buy access, not influence actual policies. I'd sure like to hear the conversations that take place during that access time.

Imagine if it was a crime for a politician to not record, and post, a conversation. The market value of the access time drops to near zero if it is not confidential.

It probably wouldn't make any difference if volunteers (citizen activists) were included in the requirements, anyway. Under Sam's proposed language, people who spend two hours per quarter with Commissioners are required to report. I've never reached that threshold, in 12 years of civic involvement.

Bergstein is quoted as saying citizens spend "a large amount of time testifying before Council." In reality, we get three minutes each topic, unlike the paid representatives of business interests who are often given more time and asked extensive questions. I'd have to testify on 40 items over three months to reach the two hour threshold, i.e., comment on at least three items on each week's agenda. It's true that citizen volunteers spend a large amount of time at Council, but mostly waiting for our turn to testify.

Unpaid citizens don't get to cozy up to Commissioners in private for hours several times per quarter. We talk with staff, and only on rare occasions ask for a brief meeting with a Commissioner on a particularly important matter.

Maybe we should change that.

At least they should have the decency to tell you which paid weasels are getting all the face time.

A good first step.

Ron's idea is brilliant, although difficult to monitor.

Afterall, they are public officials and when they are doing the public's business onthe public's dime, we should have the right to find out what they are up to.

We give them a lot of power and in exchange we should demand full disclosure.

You could start off by giving every Commissioner a handheld recorder and instruct them to turn them on every time they participate in a conversation regarding the business of the city. Make it a voluntary compliance sort of thing. If they start having off-the-record conversations, eventually someone will turn catch them (or turn them in).

Remove the ability to carry on secret dialogues and the value of gaining access will plummet.

I wonder if I could twist this into a legitimate government interest in paying for citywide WiFi access. Criminals on home detention, that wear an ankle thingy to track their whereabouts, could routinely post their GPS position to the network. The politicians could upload and broadcast, in real time, their conversations.

The DMV's computer software budget, and the super high premium cost for its development, was all about putting real time data into the hands of police. I think it was all about distorted economic development. This WiFi thing could fit in the same economic development vein.

We could call it the Clean Politician proposal. Of course, the politicians could claim to have a private pecuniary interest in maintaining secrecy because any recordings or notes are strictly for the purpose of writing their memoirs after leaving office . . . which they will write sometime after taking their turn as former-politician-lobbyist.


(I'm not afraid to leave my email address. Spammers hunt through web pages for valid addresses. mateubonet at yahoo)

I really like your blog--there's something satisfying about seeing effort put into serious political commentary about one's town, even if it doesn't come from local papers enough--but I keep cringeing at the name calling. I feel like you identify a problem, set up the context, then suddenly POW someone gets called a weasel or beret-wearing cappucino-sipping ignoramus and most of the ground has been lost.

I read only 2 other blogs on a regular basis. Lessig at Stanford and It occurred to me today that they share a near-total avoidance of name calling and focus on the facts. They show what's wrong, why, and what we all can do about it. You mostly do that, but I worry that more people who could listen might tune out any thoughts after ad hominem attacks.

We all know the lawyer line, right? "If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts. If emotion is on your side, pound on emotion. If neither is on your side, pound on the table." I think the corollary to that is that most people recognize table pounding for what it is, and ignore it. Name calling seems like verbal table pounding to me.

Anyway, keep fighting the good fight. Take breaks whenever needed. Most of us will keep checking in. You're the person who most keeps me thinking about resuming my aborted blog some day...



Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Sign 'em up:

» Commissioner Adams Floating His Lobbyist Registration Plan from The One True b!X's PORTLAND COMMUNIQUE
This past Wednesday, The Oregonian reported on Commissioner Sam Adams' proposal to register lobbyists who pimp their clients' interests to City o... [Read More]


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