Certain groups that spend money to build public pressure on Seattle politicians will soon be required to register with the city and disclose their finances.
The City Council approved an ordinance Monday establishing rules meant to shed light on such activities, and the rules are set to take effect in about six months.
The vote was 8-1. Councilmember Kshama Sawant opposed the ordinance, describing the rules as too onerous for grassroots groups and warning they could discourage political organizing by ordinary people.
Council President M. Lorena González and other supporters said the changes are needed because sophisticated groups have been able to spend on public politicking without disclosure requirements. The new rules aren’t intended to hamstring grassroots organizers, the council members said, carving out an exemption for communications within membership groups.
“This has long been a gray area without any transparency,” González said.
Public lobbying efforts have emerged repeatedly in recent years, using social media to rally people around their views and using tactics such as email blitzes to influence decisions at City Hall.
Groups have used such tactics to make noise over 2018’s “head tax” and this summer’s debate on police spending. There also has been public lobbying around a proposal that would allow judges and juries to dismiss misdemeanor crimes committed due to poverty, the news website PubliCola has reported.
People who lobby politicians directly already must register with the city and report whom they’re being paid by and how much. But groups that lobby City Hall indirectly, through the public, can operate somewhat in the dark. The people behind the groups don’t have to record who they are to the city, nor do they have to reveal where their money is coming from.
Recommended in January by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC), the new rules approved Monday would apply to groups that spend at least $750 in a month (or $1,500 in three months) on “presenting a program to the public” to affect legislation.
The individuals behind a group would need to identify themselves and their contractors, and the group would be required to identify its donors (for contributions of $25 or more). The group also would be required to describe its purpose and would need to record its spending in monthly reports. Similar rules were adopted in Washington at the state level decades ago, SEEC executive director Wayne Barnett told Seattle council members last week.
The new rules could apply to a group such as Move Seattle Forward, which popped up this summer as the council was considering cuts to the Police Department. The group opposed the cuts. Its website featured a tool to help residents email council members, and it spent more than $5,000 on Facebook ads, according to Facebook’s ad transparency portal. But neither the website nor the group’s Facebook page spelled out who was behind the effort.
The address associated with Move Seattle Forward’s Facebook ads in the ad transparency portal was the address of the Downtown Seattle Association. When The Seattle Times asked about that, the association said it was an active participant in the group but declined to name other participants.
The new rules also could apply to a group like King County Equity Now, were it to cross the spending thresholds, Barnett has said. A community coalition that took shape during this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, King County Equity Now rallied public opinion behind Police Department cuts this summer and secured city funding for a research project.
The spending thresholds should allow ordinary residents and some grassroots groups to organize petitions and other efforts without having to register, SEEC chair Nick Brown said last week. “If a group of volunteers is organizing a phone tree” the new rules wouldn’t apply, he said.
But professional-level volunteer work likely would count as spending, Barnett has said. When a candidate for office receives professional-level help for free, that work must be reported as an in-kind donation, he has noted.
Sawant objected to the public lobbying rules, arguing the compliance work and donor disclosures could have a “chilling effect” on grassroots organizers. The rules could apply to Black Lives Matter activists who rent a speaker system for a protest and collect cash donations in a hat, she suggested.
Deep-pocketed groups with lawyers and accountants will be able to comply with or evade the rules, while grassroots groups will have trouble and may be targeted with complaints by their political opponents, Sawant said. The rules could apply to the Socialist Alternative organization Sawant is a part of, though she’s more worried about less-established groups, she said.
Alice Lockhart, a volunteer with the environmental group 350 Seattle, echoed those concerns. While the rules may be “a bother for us,” they likely will prove “more burdensome” for new groups, she told the council.
But Councilmember Lisa Herbold said the lack of disclosure now is “much more corrosive to our Democratic values” than the rules will be.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda abstained from last week’s committee vote but supported the ordinance Monday, after the council passed an amendment exempting membership communications. Nonprofits, labor unions and business associations that urge to their members to contact City Hall won’t be covered by the new rules.
The SEEC will need to hire additional staff to track and enforce the new rules, with an estimated cost of $155,000 to $168,000 per year, according to a fiscal note. The SEEC didn’t recommend registration fees to offset that cost because such fees could impact organizations serving low-income communities and communities of color.
Monday’s ordinance also will make some changes to how Seattle regulates direct lobbying. Today, lobbying is defined as an attempt to influence legislation through communications with council members, the mayor and the mayor’s staff. With the changes, communications with the directors of city departments and their top staffers also will be covered.
Further, lobbyists who are hired by city election campaigns would have to disclose that work in their lobbying reports. The SEEC discussed the issue last year, after The Seattle Times wrote about about a firm that has helped to elect mayors and then lobbied their administrations on behalf of various clients.