Santa Clara County is going forward with a new ordinance to govern lobbyists. By definition, everyone who has an issue or interest is a lobbyist. But this new ordinance would apply only to those who are paid to redress county government.
These ethics ordinances are usually poorly written and implemented, and rarely enforced. The “so-called” ethics laws give the illusion that there is good government. The truth, as pointed out by Supervisor Joe Simitian, is no law is a substitute for honest and ethical public officials.
The lobbyist ordinance in San Jose, for instance, is a travesty. It is 30 pages long, poorly written and unenforceable. The law also requires lobbyists to pay registration fees, which is constitutionally suspect based on the First Amendment—free speech should be free. But who cares about lobbyists’ rights?
That being said, lobbyist’s paid activities should be transparent, because the public has a right to know that their government is not for sale. But when the paperwork is egregious and the system is set up to make people look bad, or there is a “gotcha” mentality in the ordinance, it is doomed to fail. Right now, anyone can file a complaint with the City Clerk alleging a violation, including any political opponent or nut job. Hey, they are people, too. This can waste city employees’ time to follow-up on such nonsense.
The county’s new “ethics” laws are a result of the George Shirakawa Jr. scandal. The county’s credibility was hit hard by the failure of current systems. New ethics laws will not solve that problem; they will only create more chances for gross negligence in the bureaucracy.
Most elected officials are honest and hard working, as are lobbyists. Those people who serve as paid advocates are essential to the process, because they help inform elected officials on issues and concerns not always brought to their attention by government staff. Most public employees are honest, but when they are not, a lobbyist will often bring that fact to the attention of a policymaker. It is the duty of the elected official to question both lobbyists and staff to make the best decision possible for the public.
In short, elected officials can trust both lobbyists and staff, but they must also verify the information they are receiving. That is their job. Finally, elected officials should always make the best decision for the public good, regardless of who supplies the information. They have to be able to say “no” to the lobbyist and staff.
But far too often, elected officials make decisions that are antithetical to good public policy. Whether influenced by staff, lobbyists or other interests, it is the decision that goes against the public interest that makes the populace cynical of the process and elected officials.
Joe Simitian is right. New ethics laws are not the answer. Electing officials with integrity is the only real solution.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.