The lobbyist registry returned this week to a council embarrassed by its February attempt to quietly bury it and subsequent treatment of the citizen volunteers who helped the seven–year drafting process. Some councillors say they are confused by the transparency tool and others think it will harm Hamilton’s efforts to attract new businesses, but there has been little discussion about the link to extensive hints of unethical practices at the city.
That includes one councillor revealing he gets numerous luncheon invitations from those who want to influence his vote, while another recounts repeatedly receiving gifts which she refuses or donates to charity. Even though acceptance clearly violates council’s own code of conduct, presumably such gratuities would not be offered at all if everyone were turning them down.
Earlier, a ‘tradition’ prevailed of twice–yearly private dinners provided by the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association (HHHBA) to committee chairs and senior managers. Other instances of backroom lobbying that got public attention were Enbridge’s private meetings with five councillors in late 2012 to avoid making a public presentation to council.
In the same direction questions persist about unnecessary airport land purchases from speculators at inflated prices. Unrevealed lobbying factor could also be a factor in the hundreds of million of city dollars spent every year on outside contractors, suppliers, consultants, etc.
A voluntary lobbyist registry set up a decade ago has been almost entirely ignored so citizens usually only learn about the lobbying activity if someone on council publicly refuses to participate. And that inevitably generates unanswered questions.
“Why would anyone want relations with corporate partners to be cloaked in secrecy?” a citizen publicly queried councillors in late 2012. “What is it about your meetings with representatives from corporations like Enbridge that you feel the need to hide?”
We know that the majority of campaign donations come from businesses whose profits partly depend on city council decisions. Whether such gifts open the doors of city hall decision–makers is also not currently visible to citizens.
Even past council decisions to hire lobbyists on behalf of the city have been cloaked in secrecy, and in at least one instance had the taxpayers unknowingly paying the wife of a former mayor’s executive assistant.
A decision to consider a lobbyist registry was made in 2007 and assigned to the Accountability and Transparency subcommittee which intermittently stopped meeting before finally approving a ‘made in Hamilton’ compromise proposal last fall. Registries already exist and are heavily used in Toronto and Ottawa, as well as at Queen’s Park, but those models have been rejected by councillors who say they are too expensive, too complicated, unfair or unsuitable for Hamilton’s unique situation.
Council required that funding be found for the compromise within this year’s budget, but then dropped it without even holding a vote. This was aggravated by failing to inform a citizen member of the Accountability and Transparency subcommittee of this ‘decision’ when he addressed council three weeks later urging approval. Public embarrassment then pushed council to resurrect the draft bylaw, provide a 45–day public comment period, and call this week’s special meeting.
Most who submitted comments favour a registry with many arguing for improvements. There were three letters opposed to any registry – the Hamilton Burlington Realtors Association, the HHHBA and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce
The current draft proposal exempts lobbying done by a councillor’s constituents, and won’t apply to backroom negotiations if following the bylaw is “expected to prejudice the economic interests … or the competitive position of the city.” It also skips Toronto’s rules requiring reporting of each instance of lobbying, and doesn’t establish a lobbyist code of conduct. V