San Francisco Leads Lobbying Disclosure

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When it comes to tracking meetings between lobbyists and legislators, San Francisco has taken impressive steps toward online disclosure.

Lobbyists who are paid over $3,000 for lobbying activities during a three month period must register with the city within five business days. Once registered, they are required to file monthly activity reports. These reports contain the details of each lobbyist’s contacts with public officials, including listing meetings, emails, phone calls, and personal political contributions. The reports also include the amount of the lobbyist’s compensation and any expenditures such as transportation, hotels, and meals. By contrast, the activity reports mandated by many states only require the disclosure of lobbying expenditures. In both cases it is the lobbyist, not the public official, who is responsible for filing reports.

The San Francisco Ethics Commission maintains an online Directory of Contacted Public Officials. Each contact is tied to a public official and documented with the date, subject area, lobbyist, client, issue, and outcome sought.

San Francisco’s system is not without its limitations, however. Their biggest challenge is ensuring the accuracy of activity reports. While there are penalties for noncompliance, it is hard to determine whether lobbyists are fully disclosing their contacts. The Ethics Commission conducts periodic reviews and investigations, but the number of filings and resource limitations may leave a few stones unturned.

For information regarding lobbying disclosure on the federal level, see the Sunlight Foundation’s proposed “Real Time Online Lobbying Transparency Act.” Also, watch video of the Advisory Committee on Transparency’s March 14, 2011 event “Washington’s Lobbying Fix.”

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