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Our Tax Dollars Turned Against Us
The City of Encinitas should rethink their yearly $84,000 Capri & Clay contract.
The lobbying firm Capri & Clay, with offices in Sacramento and Washington D.C., consists of three lobbyists. They report about a dozen clients to the State of California. Their revenues run about half a million dollars a year.
Instead of maintaining the current contract the city should select from the following options:
- Use the money to directly accomplish goals.
- Sign smaller and tighter contracts for specific issues on an as needed basis.
- Publicly communicate with our local representatives in Congress and Sacramento (Is there a reason why our state assemblyman and senator need assistance representing Encinitas?)
- Justify the $84,000 Capri & Clay contract.
Our council recently voted 5-0 to renew the Capri & Clay contract and did so without any discussion. Not a word. The approval of the contract itself is an example of a broken process, which facilitates the continuation of poor administration and utilization of tax dollars. There are four symptoms of the broken process:
1) CONSENT CALENDAR. An increasing number of big items like this contract are being put on the consent calendar. The consent calendar is where routine items are approved without discussion and with one motion. Expensive, novel, and oversight items like this should be aired and discussed. It has become disturbing to many city watchdogs that items that should require discussion to develop an understanding of the topics are being glossed over on the consent calendar.
2) NO OVERSIGHT? Unless the council developed their understanding of the subject behind closed doors they had no reason to renew the contract.
It is currently common for the written staff reports to be painfully brief and poorly written, as a device to base decisions. In this case, important information is obviously missing from the staff report. The report does not say what Capri & Clay has done for Encinitas in previous years and it does not mention any proposed tasks or potential benefits for the coming years.
One might think the city has kept an organized record of their lobbyist's activities, so I asked the city manager's office to outline what work Capri & Clay had been doing. The city manager's office would not provide a record, but did allow me to inspect their files on the subject. Sorting through all the material I could only find trivial accomplishments to put on the list I compiled. My conclusion at the time was, "If we need lobbyists, why are we to believe these guys are the ones?"
3) NO COMPETITION. There is a big move here in San Diego to improve the efficiency of government through managed competition. The common sense principles of the movement do apply to this situation. One of the principles is that opening contracts up to competition will push the price of service down. In this case, that seems likely. It is hard to believe that the city's three lobbyists are spending more than a few days a month "lobbying" on behalf of Encinitas. We won't know if there are other more successful firms who will do the job cheaper if we don't shop around. What is this firm's special relationship with the council? Maybe what these lobbyists are good at is lobbying our city council for work.
4) WEAK CONTRACTING. The City of Encinitas frequently signs contracts that leave the taxpayer holding the bag. Sometimes it is an issue with the contract details; other times it is the lack of built-in oversight mechanisms. The lobbyist's contract does not include a requirement for defined progress monitoring. They don't have to outline their activities that have been carried out and what the results were. They do have to turn over copies of written correspondence on the city's behalf, but there is no record made of the impact. Of course, if their activities are being systematically reported publicly then the council might not be able to use them covertly. At the time of the contract renewal there was no way to know the full scope of the legislation the lobbyists were acting on and who at the city was really directing them.
The council hadn't been publicly voting on what policies our lobbyists should pursue. Maybe this relates to the problem. Having weak public oversight and activity reporting allows the council to direct the lobbyists to act on their (or campaign supporter's) whims without public awareness. Backroom decision making at city hall should end.
I am happy to report that since our initial inquiries the council has brought several lobbying decisions to a public vote.
The municipal lobbyist issue has caught the eye of a statewide taxpayer organization. It is a conspicuous problem because taxpayers already have elected representation in Sacramento. Ours are named Assemblyman Garrick and Senator Wyland. Instead of putting lobbyists on retainer we should put our efforts into including these representatives in our public conversations. They or their staff could be asked to join the council discussions at regular intervals or on an as needed basis. We have already paid for the service, why pay twice?
HJTA's Editorial on the Subject by Jon Coupal
When the Legislature is in session, the Capitol is awash with millions of dollars worth of lobbying talent. You have never seen so many suits per square yard in your life.
In Sacramento, nothing of importance happens without the involvement of lobbyists. These denizens of the Sacramento political scene are involved in the legislative process from beginning to end. They draft legislation, find sponsors and co-authors, visit legislators and staff, build coalitions and generally engage in serious horse trading to secure passage of bills that are favorable to their clients and to crush those which threaten their clients. During the final debate on bills in either the Assembly or Senate chambers, lobbyists are frequently hanging around just outside these chambers passing a note to a Sergeant at Arms to deliver to a particular member beseeching for just one more meeting to secure a critical vote.
So influential are these hired guns that the lobbying corps is known as the "Third House." The demand for their services is so strong that some lobbying firms represent clients on both sides of the same issue -- but more about that later.
So who is it that foots the bill for these millions of dollars of this lobbying activity? Sure, the "usual suspects" -- trial lawyers, doctors, oil companies, tobacco companies, the insurance industry -- spend tons of cash. But ordinary Californians might be surprised to know that they themselves finance more lobbying -- through their tax dollars -- than any of these other "special" interests.
How can this be?
The amazing little-known truth is that the biggest spenders of lobbying dollars are local governments, cities and counties -- to the tune of a staggering $40 million in the fiscal year just ended. [Link to the rest of the editorial]