The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission could tweak disclosure rules for campaign consultants who also lobby city officials.
Seattle’s ethics commission may try to shine some additional light on lobbying at City Hall.
The commission is interested in requiring lobbyists to report the work they do for political campaigns, and at least one commissioner wants to know more about behind-the-scenes advocacy that doesn’t meet Seattle’s current definition of lobbying.
Commissioners discussed various options last week, following up on a Seattle Times story about an influential firm that wears two hats by helping to elect mayors and then lobbying their administrations.
“It would be nice to have more transparency,” commissioner Eileen Norton said at a Feb. 6 meeting.
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The appointed, volunteer Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission interprets and applies the city’s lobbying laws, among others.
Partners at Sound View Strategies who helped elect Mayor Jenny Durkan and who have given her informal political advice also have been paid by corporate clients to lobby Durkan’s administration on legislation and to advocate at City Hall on regulatory matters.
Sound View helped elect Durkan’s predecessor, Ed Murray, as well, and the firm engaged in similar activities during his time as mayor, stirring concern about undue influence.
City Council members also have sought advice from campaign consultants who may not be registered lobbyists but who do other work for interest groups, such as unions and political organizations.
Shortly before Durkan won election, in 2017, a Murray policy adviser asked the ethics commission to consider recommending that Seattle, like San Francisco, prohibit campaign consultants from lobbying the individuals they help elect. The commission discussed the issue once but took no action at the time.
Durkan has downplayed Sound View’s clout, saying she seeks a wide range of opinions, has violated no laws in any way and has given the firm no special treatment.
“The law as it exists in Seattle is robust enough to both inform the people about what’s going on in government and deter those issues,” she said in an interview late last year.
The mayor believes the city and the ethics commission “should consistently evaluate whether our transparency, reporting and disclosure laws are robust enough,” spokesman Mark Prentice said Tuesday.
Issues that deserve discussion include “requiring registration of all political committees, registration and disclosure by individuals who lobby, registration and disclosure by individuals who work on independent expenditures and/or campaigns and use of public resources for political purposes,” Prentice said.
As in 2017, ethics commissioners last week expressed wariness about an outright ban, which they said could encroach on constitutional rights. They asked the City Attorney’s Office to research the legal landscape.
The commissioners showed more enthusiasm about Seattle potentially adopting a disclosure requirement aimed at lobbyists who also do campaign work. Los Angeles requires lobbyists to disclose campaign-consulting work in their quarterly lobbyist reports.
The commission makes recommendations to the City Council, which has the power to change laws.
“This could be an easy way of making … this relationship easier for people to understand,” commission chair Brendan Donckers said.
“It’s just one more little box that the lobbyist has to fill out,” Norton said.
Though the city already requires political candidates to disclose their payments to campaign consultants and already requires lobbyists to disclose their payments from clients, those activities are reported separately and differently, so it can be hard to connect the dots.
For instance: Durkan’s campaign reported paying Sound View for political consulting, and Sound View partner Sandeep Kaushik has reported being paid to lobby at City Hall for corporations like Comcast, Lyft and Airbnb. But the public must look at both types of records and must know Kaushik is a Sound View partner in order to make the connection. In Los Angeles, lobbyists must disclose the information all in one place.
“I don’t know enough right now to say, ‘Yes, we should prohibit that from occurring.’ But I don’t know why we wouldn’t say, ‘You have to report,'” commissioner Nick Brown said.
“I think it’s a great place to start in bringing some light to it,” he added.
Durkan has said she already complies with San Francisco’s law. Kaushik has lobbied her administration but he hasn’t lobbied her personally, she said.
Kaushik didn’t respond to a request for comment. The commission intends to take up the issue again at its March meeting.
“I don’t think we want to let this drop another year without addressing it,” Brown said.
Commissioner Bruce Carter said he would like to know more about paid advocacy on regulatory matters.
Because Seattle’s definition of lobbying covers legislation only, firms can try to shape regulations without being required to report that work as lobbying. Sound View, for example, was paid to advocate for Airbnb last year as the city fine-tuned its new regulations for short-term rentals.
Wayne Barnett, the commission’s executive director, said extending the definition of lobbying to include all regulatory matters would make oversight unwieldy. The city might include advocacy related only to changing regulations, Carter said, suggesting the city auditor could assess how and how much interested parties are trying to influence regulatory changes.