The City of Tallahassee spends approximately $1 billion a year to meet the operating and capital obligations of running the third largest municipality in the state of Florida. This level of expenditure makes the city a major economic force in our community and a major source of business for vendors providing services and products that include fuel, consulting, information technology, legal services, printing, and construction.
Who gets to provide these services and for how much often times depends on who has the most influence and best access to those that make the decisions. Many vendors hire lobbyists to help them convince decision makers that a contract should go to a specific vendor or at the very least a proposal should be written in a certain way.
An investigation by Tallahassee Reports has revealed that, unlike the City of Tallahassee, most major municipalities in the state of Florida require city lobbyist to register and provide detailed information about their activities.
Which Florida Cities Register Lobbyists
|City||Register Lobbyists||Annual Expenditures (Millions)|
The chart above, which is sorted by annual city expenditures, shows that eight out the ten largest cities register lobbyists. The two cities that do not are Tallahassee and Lakeland.
The state of Florida has required executive and legislative lobbyists to register for decades. And in fact, Leon County, with a budget of approximately $240 million, required lobbyists to begin registering within the last 10 years.
The chief proponent and supporter of lobbyist reform for Leon County, former Commissioner Cliff Thaell, in an interview with Tallahassee Reports stated “lobbyists had too much access to commissioners and staff without transparency. I viewed lobbyist registration and disclosure of clients as the next step toward better government. The next important landmark will be when we get true campaign finance reform in government.”
Betsy Byrne with the City of Gainesville said “Mayor Hanrahan encouraged lobbyist registration when she noticed other cities were doing so. She wanted to make sure we were following the best practices.” Gainesville, with a city budget of $506 million, implemented registration in 2008. For fiscal year 2011, the City of Gainesville has 47 lobbyists registered.
A review of City of Tallahassee records, indicate on October 28, 1998, City commissioners voted to direct “staff to bring back a recommendation on a more comprehensive financial disclosure form and lobbyist registration.”
Discussion with city officials and further research by Tallahassee Reports indicate that since the vote in 1998, some 12 years ago, there was no further recommendations brought to the commission on the issue.
During the recent election cycle, lobbyist registration became an issue. Nancy Miller, who won her race to fill the seat vacated by Debbie Lightsey, told Tallahassee Reports that “yes, I absolutely will propose and support online registration of lobbyists. I can’t believe this is not currently done in city government as it is in the county.”
A story in the Florida Sun-Sentinel documented how other local governments are following the trend of the major municipalities in regulating lobbyists. During the 2010 election cycle, voters extended the reach of a new ethics codes from county government to apply to all cities in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The new rules in Broward County will require that every conversation between a city commissioner and a lobbyist will have to be disclosed. Commissioners will be barred from using city resources to solicit money for charity.
“They should have been requiring this from the beginning — the regulation and the transparency,” said political consultant Robin Rorapaugh, who served on the task force that wrote the Broward ethics code. “Welcome to the 21st century.”
Back in Tallahassee, officials reluctant to go on the record publicly, indicated privately that paid lobbyist have been showing up at city hall in greater numbers in the last few years. Why? One official said it’s the same reason Jesse James hung around banks – it’s where the money is.
An informal poll of officials indicates the registration of lobbyists is not a question of if, but when. The process is only waiting on someone to bring up the issue, much like Commissioner Mustian did with deferred compensation. The vote to end deferred compensation, when the sunshine was finally let in, was 5-0.
Who will be the hero of transparency here in the City of Tallahassee, the capital of the Sunshine State? Which city commissioner will step out on that island? Sounds like a good internet poll question.