What role did backroom lobbying play in unnecessary city purchases of airport lands, in the subsequent urban boundary expansion for the aerotropolis, or in the OMB Elfrida appeal that provide windfall profits to speculators? And would the proposed lobbyist registry help to limit improper influences on politicians and city staff?
Residents have until May 30 to submit written comments about the proposed lobbyist registry that was resurrected earlier this month after a council attempt to quietly bury it backfired. The comments will be reported to councillors at a special meeting on June 18.
A review of Toronto’s registry five years after it was established found over 550 registered lobbyists representing nearly 1000 clients. No councillor was lobbied fewer than 50 times and total instances approached 6500. But the Hamilton bylaw is substantially weaker than the Toronto registry rules.
Unlike the Toronto system, the proposed registry in Hamilton will not require reporting of each individual instance of lobbying, or who was lobbied when, or a description of what benefit was being sought each time. Lobbyists will simply be required to register at least 15 days before beginning to lobby and to identify the general subject matter and the individuals expected to be lobbied.
The Hamilton proposal also sharply limits which city staff are defined as “public office holders” and therefore subject to the lobbying rules. In Hamilton these are restricted to elected officials and their hired assistants plus eight senior staff. In both Ottawa and Toronto, the definition extends at least to the level of director in recognition that many lower–ranking staff can make financial and policy decisions.
Also unlike Toronto, the responsibilities of Hamilton staff and councillors “do not include gathering or providing information concerning lobbying of him or her,” except when specifically asked by the lobbyist registrar. To reduce costs, there also won’t be a dedicated registrar in Hamilton. Instead, the task is proposed to be given to the integrity commissioner who will only act on complaints.
An often repeated objection to any registry is that it may drive away businesses who don’t want their interests in Hamilton made public. Many councillors argue that the completely secret deal that brought the Maple Leaf wiener plant to Hamilton would not have occurred if transparency was required.
In response to these concerns, a special clause has been added to the draft bylaw stating: “The Lobbyist Registrar may exempt lobbying from some or all the requirements of this by–law if he or she is satisfied in advance by a lobbyist that registration could reasonably be expected to prejudice the economic interests of the city of Hamilton or the competitive position of the city of Hamilton.”
Another difference is the lack of a written code of conduct that lobbyists are required to follow. Toronto’s code forbids lobbyists from “offering, providing or bestowing entertainment, gifts, meals, trips or favours of any kind” and prohibits “lobbying activities at a charitable event, community or civic event, or similar gathering.”
Such activity appears to occur in Hamilton. Two councillors have publicly repudiated the “tradition” of having private dinners with the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association. One of those councillors has publicly stated he has refused multiple offers of free dinners; another has reported refusing multiple gifts from developers. Senior staff also appear to be wined and dined.
It’s not clear from the city’s notice of public consultation whether residents will be allowed to make oral presentations at the June18 meeting where the fate of the registry is determined, but that is usually permitted if a written request is made to the clerk in advance. V