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August 3rd, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

THE L WORD

Sam Adams wants City Hall lobbyists to register. Simple, right?

     
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IMAGE: LUKAS KETNER
It wasn't a complicated campaign promise: Sam Adams, Portland City Council's newest commissioner, pledged last year to require the pro political fixers, full-time activists and seasoned dealmakers who lobby at City Hall to report their activities. Congress does it; the state Legislature does it; even Metro, Portland's regional government, does it.

So why hasn't Adams' seemingly simple premise advanced to a council vote seven months later? Some critics argue that the effort to open City Hall's back doors has become its own labyrinth of complexities.

In his decade-plus as ex-Mayor Vera Katz's chief of staff, Adams was the ultimate City Hall insider. He now says he saw countless situations where knowing who was working for whom would have reduced tensions-in the bloodbath over siting parking garages in dense Northwest Portland, for example.

"The levels of suspicion and paranoia were just incredible," Adams recalls today. "The allegations of inside dealing were flying, and there was basically nothing you could do to prove or disprove them."

So Commissioner Adams hatched his plan to create a central registry to track City Hall's most active influence peddlers-and penalize anyone who failed to report their lobbying of City Council or bureaucrats. With lobbyists forced to disclose whom they work for, whom they talk to and how much time they spend on specific issues, Adams figured many conspiracy theories could die peacefully.

No one seemed to oppose the idea on principle. Problem was, almost no one wanted Adams' new system-and in particular, the dreaded L-word-to apply to them. Activists associated with the city's dozen s of neighborhood associations wanted no part. The unions, Adams says, "came in and yelled at me." Issue-oriented crusaders insisted their mission was to "educate" City Council, not push politics. And the myriad professional influencers who bend Portland officialdom's ear weren't happy with the lobby label.

"Inside the building and the industry of people who do this in Portland, they're usually not called lobbyists," Adams says. "They're lawyers, they're consultants, they're developers-underline that last one."

All that explains why Adams' promise remains unfulfilled after months of hearings and negotiations-and why a straightforward idea is now encased in a complicated nine-page draft ordinance that requires a five-page FAQ to explain. Adams recently pushed back a scheduled Aug. 11 council hearing until September to allow for one more round of public input.

With all the wrangling, some think this thing has gotten a little crazy. Adams' effort to make City Hall more transparent to outsiders-and demonstrate his own outsider's zeal-appears to have become wonkery only an insider could love: complicated, mired in process, diluted by contributions from too many self-interested cooks.

"What I find ironic is that his effort has fallen victim to the very thing it's designed to address," says fellow commissioner Randy Leonard.

Indeed, among the many twists and turns in the current draft are provisions exempting city-recognized neighborhood associations entirely and excusing public employees' unions from many requirements. Individual citizens don't have to register, unless they represent a "lobbying entity."

Those "entities" must register with the City Auditor if they spend more than 16 hours in a three-month period lobbying, and report details of their expenses and activities. Unless, that is, they plan to spend less than $1,000 in a calendar year, in which case groups can file "certificates of limited expenditure provided by the Auditor's office." And-well, you get the idea.

"It's become overly complicated," Leonard says. "So it becomes difficult to administer." He would prefer a system that simply requires anyone who interacts with the city for more than a prescribed time to register, regardless of their purpose, affiliation or lack thereof.

Adams counters that the lengthy process was needed to fine-tune the ordinance. "It's been fascinating," Adams says. "I think six months of outreach has allowed us to create a better law."

The neighborhood associations and unions, once critical, are now understandably placated. Still, Adams says he doesn't yet know if he's nailed down a council majority for all of the proposal's many wrinkles. Leonard, for instance, hates the rule that would force commissioners to post their schedules on the city's website.

The daybooks are public record, but usually only journalists request them. Leonard is concerned wider dissemination could invite harassment from lunatics, and he calls it a "drop-dead thing for me."

Adams maintains that despite the many entanglements, he's convinced the new system he promised on the campaign trail last fall-part of his overall "shake up City Hall" theme-will make the city more user-friendly.

"This will daylight the nature of relationships," he says. "And therefore, if you're accused of something and you're innocent, you can prove it."

 
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