Sunday, August 13, 2006

Avoiding the Pitfalls in Municipal Lobbying

Guy W. Giorno
Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
(September 27, 2005)

Note: An edited version of this commentary appeared in The Globe and Mail, September 27, 2005, p. A19, beneath the headline, “Register this: It takes two to lobby”

The judicial inquiry into Toronto’s MFP fiasco has produced sensible advice, not just for Ontario’s largest city, but for municipal governments across the country.

For example, Madam Justice Denise Bellamy’s report in the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry contains welcome recommendations to establish a municipal lobbyist registry and a code of conduct for those lobbying civic officials.

Toronto’s official response is that it wants to establish a lobbyist registry, but lacks sufficient authority under provincial legislation. Pointing its municipal finger at the Ontario government, city council claims that it is otherwise unable to require disclosure of who lobbies whom.

As usual in cases of buck-passing, the reality is somewhat grey. Certainly the provincial government should introduce legislation permitting municipalities to create full-blown lobbyist registries and to regulate the activities of professional advocates. (Quebec is currently the only province with a law providing for lobbyist registration at the municipal level.) In the meantime, however, Toronto and other cities are far from helpless. There is much they can already do if they are sincere about making lobbying transparent and accountable.

It takes two to lobby: an advocate to make representations and a public servant to listen. Civic officials always have the right to refuse access to lobbyists who won’t play by certain rules. They don’t need provincial legislation to do so.

For example, some Toronto councillors make lobbyists sign a log before accepting their visits. The registers of lobbyist visits are turned over to the city clerk’s office, where they are available to the public.

It’s a simple system: unless the lobbyist signs in, he or she cannot speak to the councillor. The shortcoming of the Toronto model is that this process is voluntary -- voluntary for councillors.

Even though Toronto councillors voted overwhelmingly to create the lobbyistsregistry, only a tiny handful of them make lobbyists register their activities. There are 45 members of Toronto’s city council. Last month only one of them submitted a lobbyist log. In August only two councillors participated.

The record of Toronto’s mayor is little better. David Miller has filed lobbyist logs exactly twice: in January and February 2003. This was before he became mayor and, in fact, before his mayoral campaign gathered steam.

As chief magistrate, Mr. Miller has chosen not to file lobbyist logs with the city clerk. Nor does he make lobbyists sign in upon entering his office. Who meets whom there is undisclosed.

Nonetheless, municipal lobbyists routinely meet with staff in the Toronto mayor’s office and various lobbyists have taken clients to meet Mr. Miller himself. I spoke to several lobbyists who confirmed that this occurs.

Toronto’s mayor vividly boasted about opening the front doors to citizens and padlocking the back doors to private interests, but contact with lobbyists continues.
That in itself is unobjectionable. Lobbying is easily maligned but does not threaten our democracy so long as the process is transparent. Few would deny the fundamental importance of allowing citizens, interest groups, trade unions and businesses to present their positions to government. This democratic right is rooted in the Magna Carta, which confirmed the right of nobles to seek redress of grievances, and the 1689 Bill of Rights which declared “That it is the right of the subjects to petition the King ...”

What the public interest requires is to make lobbying open and to shed light on representations to government. That is the laudable theory behind Toronto’s voluntary lobbyists registry, even if the participation rate is execrable.

Municipalities can take three immediate steps to make lobbying transparent.

First, they should create lobbyist registries. While the ideal registry is mandatory, in most places that would require provincial legislation. In the meantime, even a voluntary system should be sufficient to secure the participation of elected officials. Every councillor sincere about the process ought to cooperate already.

Councils then should make the lobbyist information readily available. In this day and age, that means posting the registry’s content on the Web. Toronto’s logs are stored in a 12th floor office and are accessible only by personal inspection. It is almost as if access has intentionally been made difficult.

A further, obvious reform would be to instruct municipal employees to record all their dealings with lobbyists. These records, too, would be filed with the clerk and publicly available. No provincial legislation would be required, and a council could enact this policy almost immediately. The only requirement is the political will to make lobbying open and transparent.

Toronto’s voluntary lobbyists registry is a model that Canadian municipalities should emulate. The unfortunate caveat is that other cities and towns should do as Toronto’s mayor and councillors say, not as Toronto’s elected reprentatives do.

Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. You can subscribe now to his monthly public affairs newsletter by visiting www.action-strategies.ca and dropping down the newsletter menu.

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