People must know who is influencing their government, especially when lots of money is involved.
That’s the case in Seattle, where the City Council is relying on several opaque organizations to dramatically reshape the city’s budget and policing.
Some have not registered as lobbyists, even though they appear to be spending money to influence the council. Seattle’s lobbying rules have problematic gaps, though, so it’s unclear whether they apply to the groups, King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle.
Regardless of how one feels about changes that are happening, the policy influencing needs to be transparent.
We have laws requiring open meetings and disclosure of public records, so people know what their public servants are doing and why.
Washington, King County and Seattle also require lobbyists to register and disclose their interests, so people know who is spending money to shape policy and steer dollars their direction.
While this region used to lead on disclosure rules, gaps are growing as organizations use new digital tools to wield influence under the radar of transparency policies.
State and local politicians generally support transparency, but they’ve been slow to close these loopholes.
The need for more disclosure, particularly of grassroots lobbying, was apparent when Seattle’s City Council voted Aug. 10 to begin “defunding” the Seattle Police Department and direct millions to nonprofits.
This is delicate for several reasons. One is because transparency rules should not impede people’s right to speak freely and petition their government.
But it’s different when organizations pay for lobbying, by employing people who lobby or spending money on activity such as recruiting and guiding others to influence policy. That’s when they should register and disclose funding and activity. Concerns about privacy or paperwork are outweighed by the public’s interest in disclosure.
It’s also delicate because the emergence of new leaders and organizations in the Black community is tremendous and must be encouraged.
I wholeheartedly support the renewed fight against racism and police brutality. But I disagree with the politics of King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, which emerged during Seattle’s recent protests.
I also respect their ability to organize, motivate supporters and get a new generation of voters fired up and engaged.
There is a point, though, when such organizations evolve into professional political entities.
Any group crossing that threshold and spending money to influence officials must register as a lobbyist, so the public knows who they are and what they’re doing.
This requirement isn’t negative. It boosts the credibility of organizations, and builds public trust in their activity.
Without transparency, people assume the worst.
That’s happening in Seattle, where the council was heavily influenced by King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle.
Thanks to the reporting by independent journalist Omari Salisbury, we know those groups were influencing council members backstage.
After council members made pronouncements about being responsive to “the community,” implying consensus support from Black residents, Salisbury asked who exactly they were hearing from.
On Aug. 18 Salisbury shared responses from five council members. Four disclosed meetings with Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now.
Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda didn’t provide a list but disclosed primary influencers.
“Since May 30 our office has worked primarily with the coalitions Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now,” her staffer wrote.
Several said they met with Creative Justice, a nonprofit that’s part of Decriminalize Seattle. Creative Justice has received funding from Seattle and King County and employs activist Nikkita Oliver as co-director and advocacy lead.
King County Equity Now raised nearly $300,000 from donations and is “fiscally sponsored” by Africatown Community Land Trust, a Central District developer. Its demands include not just shifting funds from police, but allocating $1 billion to “help the Black community acquire property in the Central area and support Black economic development.”
The group also wants several developable properties — owned by the city, state, Seattle Housing Authority and Sound Transit — made available to Black-led entities.
Both organizations have professional websites with tools for grassroots political activity, including scripts and links for supporters to influence officials directly or via social media, and tools to build supporter email lists.
Wayne Barnett, executive director of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission, said registration is required if they are spending money to influence policymakers.
“If you’re out organizing that is not lobbying but if you are communicating with City Council members with intent to influence legislation, that would be lobbying,” he said.
Changes to the city’s lobbyist disclosure rules, strengthening disclosure of campaign activity, were proposed by the commission last year but the council has yet to act on them.
The commission has considered disclosure requirements for grassroots lobbying, similar to state rules, but they haven’t advanced. Council members need to implement such rules before using “participatory budgeting” approaches that can favor organizations skilled at grassroots lobbying.
I’m also intrigued by another new organization, the Black Future Co-op Fund. Led by experienced nonprofit executives, it will provide grants and infrastructure for groups working on issues like housing, education and justice reform.
Support may include guidance on how nonprofits can maintain tax-exempt status, for instance. Perhaps the Co-op should expand that training to cover political-disclosure rules, including when groups need to register as lobbyists.