San Jose City Council Looks to Strengthen Lobbyist Regulations

Lobbyists in San Jose are required to file quarterly reports detailing which city officials they met with and the issues they discusses. But by the time they get published online, some of those issues may have already been decided.

On Tuesday, the City Council will consider increasing the frequency of those reports from every few months to every week. That way, the public will be able to see who’s being paid to influence city policy before it comes up for a vote.

The proposal is one of several lobbying reforms tackled by the city in the past decade. Lobbyists are required to register with the City Clerk’s Office, pay fees and file routine reports about their meetings. Elected officials are supposed to report those meetings, too, on calendars they publish online.

A Mercury News report two years ago found that council members often failed to note all the meetings on their end, which prompted them to take another look at local transparency laws. Mayor Sam Liccardo recommended changing from weekly to quarterly reports in December 2015, but adoption was delayed until City Clerk Toni Taber found the right software to use. Taber said it needed to be free and efficient.

As officials figured out which computer system worked best for more frequent reporting, the City Clerk’s Office made other changes. Taber’s department began sending out reminders of filings deadlines via email in 2016, which dramatically reduced the number of late filings. In January of this year, the city also began accepting filings by email.

The email reminders and registration made a huge difference, Taber told San Jose Inside when she was preparing her recommendations to revise local lobbying laws.

Records obtained by San Jose Inside showed that even longtime lobbyists had trouble meeting deadlines before the emailed reminders and registration.

The San Jose Earthquakes soccer club racked up a $26,000 tab in late fees by the end of February last year. Hopkins & Carley, the law firm that employs former Mayor Chuck Reed, owed $22,000 to the city that same month. Tom Saggau and Dustin DeRollo let their past-due charges grow to $4,000 before paying them down, after Taber sent them a hard-copy letter at the end of 2015. Click here to read all the non-compliance letters Taber issued in the past year-and-a-half to get an idea of who owed what.

The proposal coming before the council this week would require lobbyists to file online reports every Monday if they met with city officials the week prior. Taber plans to use a one-year trial of a software program called Seamless. The program doesn’t include all the reporting capabilities she needs, Taber said, but it would enable quick filings and would cost the city nothing.

No new penalties are proposed. However, quarterly reports and yearly registration will remain mandatory and existing fines still apply. Taber said the weekly reports may render the quarterly filings moot—but that’s for the council to decide.

More from the San Jose City Council agenda for June 20, 2017:

  • The negotiations agreement between Google and the city—which San Jose Inside wrote about last week—is up for review. Click here to read the tentative proposal, which stands to double downtown’s office capacity and add up to 8 million square feet of new development around Diridon Station. In a shared memo, Liccardo, Peralez, Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco and council members Sylvia Arenas and Dev Davis call for “a transparent community engagement process, which should include local residents, small businesses, and faith-based and local organizations” and should not start until after the winter holiday season. “We appreciate that many are looking for the city to mandate conditions on the development and for Google to make commitments on potential amenities,” they wrote. “However, there are no conceptual plans yet for this development, and we have yet to commence negotiations. We will ensure a robust community engagement process, which will provide opportunities to discuss potential community benefits. We appreciate Google’s willingness to have a transparent, responsible, and accessible process that will provide a voice for the community.”
  • The council will also talk about upping the values of gifts city officials are allowed to receive. Under San Jose’s gift ordinance, elected officials and designated staffers can only accept gifts valued at $50 or less. The Ethics Commission suggests raising the limit to $250, while Councilman Lan Diep wants to bring the city’s threshold closer in line with state law. Under the California Political Reform Act, elected officials, candidates and certain government employees can only accept gifts valued at less than $470 and must report all gifts valued at $50 or more on public disclosure forms. Mayor Liccardo, however, wants to keep the limit as is, at $50.
  • An effort to replace the water pumps in the flood-prone Rock Springs neighborhood hit a few snags, pushing the project behind schedule. “Design challenges” and the need to put the project back out to bid slowed things down. Then the flood happened. When Coyote Creek overflowed into the Rock Springs neighborhood on Feb. 21, it prompted local agencies to redesign the Nordale Pump Station project to include a flood wall. Now, city staffers are asking for a fifth amendment to a $500,000 contract with consultants West Yost & Associates. Construction is expected to finalize by December.
  • San Jose’s City Hall rotunda recently got a new multi-colored theatrical lighting system installed, which makes it easier to illuminate the iconic structure in different hues by request. The city reserves certain dates for certain colors—blue for Earthquakes opening week, teal for Sharks playoff games, green-red for Christmas, and so on. The council this week will consider formalizing guidelines for rotunda lighting requests, which until now have been dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The new eligibility guidelines will allow for lighting to mark official city business, special events, public art displays, tragedies or “acts of God” and indoor events.
  • Councilmen Don Rocha and Raul Peralez want to use $627,000 collected from planning and code enforcement fees to fund a survey of historic sites in the city. As of last year, the city’s inventory counted about 4,000 historic buildings and sites. But that’s far from exhaustive, Rocha and Peralez wrote in a shared memo. By conducting a more thorough survey, preservationists can drum up interest and support for those buildings early in the land-use process, they said. Ideally, the council members added, the city would find a way to hire a full-time staffer to lead preservation efforts. “We share in the frustration of many preservation advocates and developers alike in not having such an important resource available,” Rocha and Peralez wrote. “The history of San Jose has attracted so many to our great city for over a century and in the midst of a strong development cycle, we should have all the tools available to preserve that history while developing thoughtfully.

WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Council, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

This article has been updated.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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