At the local level, lobbying is more valuable to elected officials, because they have fewer staff than elected officials at the national/state level. Therefore, they need more information, more expertise, more constituent services, and more help in drafting ordinances, specifications, and other documents, all of which lobbyists are willing and able to provide at no expense, but with expectations of reciprocity. Lobbyists and principals can prove useful to local officials by doing a lot of the support work they need, including professional advice in areas such as engineering, procurement, land use, accounting, and specialized areas of the law. With respect to newly elected officials, no information can be more helpful than information about how the legislative, land use, and procurement processes work. An experienced lobbyist, especially one with public service experience, is in the best position to provide this kind of information and profit from it.

Much of local lobbying is done not by professional lobbyists, but rather by owners, managers, attorneys, and community or government relations directors of entities that are directly seeking special financial benefits from the local government. Few of the individuals engaging in lobbying activities at the local level are paid specially to lobby, because the companies involved don’t have the resources to have a lobbyist on staff or even to hire a professional lobbyist. In fact, it would often be a waste of money, because there is likely no professional lobbyist who has better relations with local officials than the business owner or the company’s attorney does Unlike professional lobbyists, these business owners and lawyers generally do not consider themselves “lobbyists.”

Most local lobbying is not about public policy, but rather about land use matters, procurement, grants, subsidies, and licenses. It is about seeking financial benefits directly rather than through changes in laws that benefit entire industries or professions. Local lobbying is not about whether a policy is best for the community. It involves more mundane questions, such as the wording of contract specifications, whether a grant should be given to x rather than y, or whether a particular kind of business or development should be allowed in a particular part of town.

When local lobbyists are specially paid or hired for their work, they usually report directly to the business owner or CEO and, therefore, the owner or CEO is involved more closely in local lobbying activities than in national lobbying, where lobbying is overseen by a governmental relations department or is done through professional and professional associations. Therefore, at the local level, it is more reasonable to hold the owner or CEO directly responsible for lobbying activities and their disclosure to the public.

It is easier for businesses to make long-term connections at the local level because local elected officials do not have a long commute. Local officials are, by definition, at home. Therefore, all year long local officials socialize at the same bars and restaurants as local lobbyists and business owners, play golf and tennis at the same clubs, etc. Having so many more opportunities to develop personal relationships with officials is a huge advantage for those seeking special benefits from their local government. It also mixes lobbying and socializing, so that it is very difficult to tell them apart. This mixture is more problematic locally than it is at the national level.

At the local level, there is also no important difference between a lobbyist for a for-profit developer and a lobbyist for a nonprofit association, institution, or social service organization. Whereas at the national level, most nonprofits are concerned with policies, not with contracts, real estate projects, or grants, nonprofit hospitals, universities, social service providers, unions, and chambers of commerce lobby just the way for-profit contractors, developers, and regulated businesses do.

Besides providing money, information, and friendship, some local lobbyists gain access to and influence with local officials by providing constituent services. No one is in a better position to provide these services than local universities and hospitals, social service agencies, arts organizations, unions, and professional associations, all of which seek financial benefits from the local government. Sometimes these entities even lobby, raise funds, or put together coalitions in support of political and charitable causes that mean a lot to the mayor or the council president. And, of course, no cause means as much as a re-election campaign. Organizations, associations, and unions that have lots of members in the community, as well as companies with lots of employees, can provide valuable electoral and financial support. And something is usually expected in return

Another part of lobbying that is more important at the local level is monitoring the status of matters, which is a service lobbyists supply to all their clients. At the national/state level, anyone can find the status of most matters online. But at the local level, things are usually not as transparent. This makes lobbyists who have connections and an understanding of the way things work especially valuable. Those who work in certain areas, such as procurement and land use, often monitor matters themselves through their personal relationships with important officials.

Another important thing that makes local lobbying more problematic than national/state lobbying is that it mostly involves what, for the public, are minor matters, as compared with important public policy issues. Local lobbying involves such things as contract specifications and change orders, the handing out of national, state, and local grant and loan money, zoning permits, and the regulation of businesses. In these areas, the only pressure on officials tends to come from those who lobby; there is, therefore, none of the competition, and the accompanying oversight, that comes in public policy matters from those with different views. Even with major property developments, much of the lobbying occurs early in the process, before the public is aware, and much of the lobbying thereafter consists of grassroots lobbying, which does not involve the direct communications with officials. Few citizens follow or understand these areas, and they are also not well covered by the news media. Hence, local lobbying is even less transparent than national/state lobbying. Therefore, the need for its disclosure to make it more transparent is more important at the local level. And yet it is far more rare for any disclosure to be required.

Most people (including local government officials) seem to have only a hazy idea what a lobbyist is and what a lobbyist does. Without local lobbying oversight programs providing training and disclosure, they are unlikely to get a clearer idea. Considering the denial that local lobbying exists and the lack of understanding of local lobbying, it is no surprise that oversight of the lobbying of local government officials has been the topic of very little study, that existing local lobbying codes differ in numerous ways (and rarely due to conscious experimentation), and that there are no best practices available to help local governments decide how to provide this oversight. There is also no information about the extent of lobbying at the local level.

Most local governments do not have lobbying oversight programs, lobbying codes, or even provisions that relate specially to lobbyists. Nor do they have municipal lobbying codes. The major reason for this is that most local government officials and local government associations take the position that there are not many local lobbyists and, therefore, no need for a lobbying code. Yet there is much more local lobbying than most people seem to believe.  

Every local government should have at least a basic lobbying code, or a lobbying section in an ethics (that is, conflicts of interest) code, that (1) requires ongoing, online disclosure of lobbying activities, broadly defined, and (2) contains certain prohibitions and obligations that relate to both lobbyists and principals (that is, clients and employers of those who lobby). It is important to include principals, because local lobbying can best be distinguished from national lobbying by the fact that more of it is done by principals and their employees than by contract lobbyists. One of the main reasons to have an inclusive lobbying code is to increase awareness not only in the community, but also among local officials and employees, that there is a lot of lobbying going on that they didn’t realize was lobbying, and to give them a concrete picture of these lobbying activities — who is seeking to influence whom, who is given the opportunity to meet with officials, and when lobbying begins and with respect to what matters and issues. It’s not that lobbying is wrong. However, it is important to be aware of it, to be open about it, to consider issues of fairness and inclusion, to deal responsibly with the special relationships that arise through and around lobbying, and to recognize that, especially when done in secret, both sides of the lobbying relationship can pressure each other in ways that are inappropriate and that undermine trust in those who govern a community.

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