Oakland Lobbying Law Alert (April 2019)

Very Low Lobbyist Registration
Threshold in Oakland
While most large cities in California require individuals who “lobby” City officials and employees to register and file reports disclosing their lobbying activities, Oakland’s lobbying law stands out because its registration trigger is so low.  Local jurisdictions typically require lobbyists to register if they reach a certain level of activity – i.e., once a lobbyist makes a particular number of contacts with City officials or spends a certain percentage of time lobbying.  Oakland requires individuals who work at a business, nonprofit or labor union to register if they have just one substantive lobbying contact with the Mayor, a Councilperson, one of their aides, a member of a City Commission, or a City employee.  Individuals working on behalf of clients – whether they refer to themselves as government affairs consultants, public affairs professionals, attorneys, planners, etc. – are required to register and file reports if they bill just $1,000 for lobbying activities and have at least one substantive lobbying contact with a City official or employee.
     The following examples demonstrate the broad scope of Oakland’s lobbying law:

    *    A lawyer who works at a cannabis dispensary and sends a letter to Planning Department staff arguing that the dispensary’s permit application meets all statutory requirements must register as a lobbyist.

     *    A public affairs consultant who was retained for $2,500 a month to help a client obtain a City contract, and who sends an email to a Council staffer with more details about the client’s RFP, must register as a lobbyist.

     *    A labor union employee who tries to convince a Councilperson to sponsor an ordinance about minimum staffing at City health clinics must register as a lobbyist.

     *    A real estate developer employee who calls Planning Department staff to try to accelerate the City’s review of the developer’s conditional use permit must register as a lobbyist.

     Although Oakland’s lobbying law contains some exceptions – e.g., being invited by the Council to testify at a public hearing, attorneys who submit letters for a public hearing, “grassroots” lobbying – these exceptions are much narrower than exceptions in the lobbying laws of other jurisdictions and often do not prevent registration because of the incredibly low registration thresholds.

     The lobbying law is backed by the enforcement power of the Oakland Ethics Commission.  Failing to register or properly filling out a quarterly report could lead to fines of $1,000 per violation or disqualification from lobbying for one year.  Although the Ethics Commission has not to date levied a fine for lobbyist registration or reporting errors, it recently investigated a trade association, labor union and government affairs consultant.  It is also now fully funded and fully staffed, including a recently-hired Director of Enforcement who has years of prosecutorial experience.  Individuals and entities active in the City should consider registration in light of these potential legal and political liabilities, especially given that the reporting requirements – though detailed and ongoing – are not as burdensome as in most other local jurisdictions.

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Feel free to contact a Sutton Law Firm attorney or Political Compliance Specialist if you have any questions regarding San Jose or other local lobbying laws.