Amending Lobbyist Registry has Merit
Closing Loopholes Protects Property Tax Payers
Cast your minds back to the infamous computer leasing scandal in Toronto, envelopes containing cash and the Bellamy Commission in Toronto. Madam Justice Denise Bellamy released her final report on the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry and the Toronto External Contracts Inquiry on September 12, 2005.
Valuable lessons should have been learned but become valuable only when records are kept. Simply requiring anyone or any group attempting to bring elected officials or staff in its deliberations on matters affecting the “public purse” should be candid enough to disclose their pecuniary interests and file declarations as to the substance of all meetings with elected officials or staff.
A major part of Toronto mayor John Tory’s plan puts some teeth into the new law. Brampton currently has a tepid version of a Lobbyist and Gift Registry on the books. In fact, it was incoming mayor Linda Jeffrey who promised openness and transparency while campaigning for election.
When you think that elected officials are already required to declare personal conflicts of interest prior to any deliberation in matters where they have even an indirect pecuniary interest; the concept of protecting the tax payer is noble.
No law without meaningful penalties is effective. If the penalty for drunk driving was a simple warning, there would be no deterrent. The financial impact to municipal rate payers is significant when influence is exerted by individuals or groups that have financial connections to entities that have an interest or financial benefit to be gained.
Mayor Tory’s proposal includes fines of up to $100,000 whereas the existing Brampton Lobbyist by-law assesses a simple one year ban on lobbyists that fail to register.
Moreover, the exceptions permitting communications without lobbyist registration are woefully filled with more holes than a window screen. The Registry by-law as it exists does not exclude (for example) a person making representations on behalf of a resident. A lawyer retained to litigate and resident’s complaint is thus excluded from filing his/her contact details. In fact, in the Lobbyist Registry by-law there are sufficient exclusions as would indicate only a known “hired gun” with a public record of lobbying need bother to register in Brampton.
Civil Activism versus Lobbying
In Toronto, the Executive Committee of Toronto’s City Council approved (by a vote of 11 to 1) a motion to bring about changes to the Toronto Lobbyist Registry. Those changes (once voted on by the entire council) close off the myriad of exceptions and put some real financial teeth into the by-law. Where the new Toronto Registry falls short is in the area of enforcement. Who would actually enforce the Registry and the process of lodging a complaint are not explained in a recent article (Now Magazine, May 02, 2016, by Jonathan Glodsbie, “MAYOR TORY BELIEVES THAT COMMUNITY GROUPS SHOULD HAVE TO REGISTER AS LOBBYISTS”
In closing off the myriad of exceptions, the sweeping Toronto changes in law do a fairly good job of delineating activism (always a good thing) and lobbying (often adverse to the interests of rate payers).
There is a quantum difference between an individual resident voicing concerns about a matter impacting him/her locally – on his/her street or neighborhood and an organized group attempting to exert pressure on elected officials on a matter of wider interests. It seems that the Toronto Registry changes would make it fairly clear that if the subject matter is not about your immediate residency area you are expected to register as a lobbyist prior to attempting interactions with elected officials or staff.
Even the most liberal (note, small ”l” liberal) members of council such as Councilor Michael Layton saw the need to delineate legitimate grassroots concerns from outside influence. The disclosures required under Toronto’s proposed Registry rules would go a very long way to protect grassroots groups that realistically should have absolutely no problem in registering. In fact, the Registry would be a great fire wall between those grassroots groups and slick lobbyists. Not the least of those differences is certainly in the lack of financial resources to legitimate grassroots activists versus professional or ad hoc lobbyists that have deep financial pockets placed at their disposal by patrons with vested financial interests.
On the Local Scene
Siri Agrell, a former Kathleen Wynne staff member presently carrying out a similar function in Toronto hit the nail on the head when she said, “This is about transparency, and our belief that the public should have visibility into the various groups that lobby city councillors on matters of public record.”
Brampton Mayor Jeffrey as a former colleague of current Premier Wynne (and the champion of the present Lobbyist Registry in Brampton) would be wise to follow Ms. Agrell’s advice as well. Siri Agrell is a former Globe and Mail Municipal Affairs journalist previously served as Kathleen Wynne’s Deputy Director of Communications.
Most of us are savvy enough to comprehend that everything has a cost and a price. We have watched in fright as nondescript groups have wielded financial clout in attempts to sway City Council. Look: mass production of flyers, free food, slick videos and out of town training junkets cost someone some money. Individual grassroots activists are drowned out in public visibility as these high-flying lobbyists are permitted to disguise themselves.
Hopefully there were lessons learned from the Bellamy Commission and we have progressed (as a society) beyond lobbyists skulking about in the hall ways of City Hall – even after hours on occasions.
There is a very old Ojibwa saying, “the truth is not the enemy of honest people”. Radical changes are badly needed to the Brampton Lobbyist Registry in order to return prime attention to legitimate grassroots dialogue.
If we continue down the present path, the average “little guy/lady” with an issue is simply drowned out by the brass parade mounted by lobby groups with well-healed financial backers.
Let’s demand that everyone lobbying council must resister and provide (hopefully) some clarity as to where the financial resources flow from. The consequence to those individuals or groups that are detected concealing financial resources certainly ought to result in stiff fines via summary convictions.
Only by taking strong actions to stem the emergence of lobby groups can we give back voice to the individuals who wish to express opinions and concerns pertaining to matters directly impacting their street or neighborhoods.
After all, in most democratic societies we are governed by elected and representative governments and risk a great deal when we permit mob mentality to replace democratic process.
Copyright Thunderbird Rising 2016
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