Debate continues over voter-­approved lobbying requirements

San Francisco voters may have approved increased lobbyist transparency in November, but the debate over the measure is far from over.

The Ethics Commission is scheduled to meet Jan. 5 to discuss implementing Proposition C, the expenditure lobbyist measure. It will be the commission’s first meeting with newly hired executive director LeeAnn Pelham.

With the law going into effect Feb. 1, nonprofits are calling for an exemption in what seems like a continuation of the debate over the ballot measure, which was approved Nov. 3 by nearly 75 percent of the voters.

There is also debate over how certain aspects of the law are regulated. For example, the law exempts communications with a nonprofit’s members without triggering disclosure requirements, but how a “member” and “communications” are defined is subject to debate.

The San Francisco Human Services Network, a group of about 80 nonprofits, requested an exemption amendment in a Nov. 23 letter sent to the Ethics Commission. The letter says the law is going to empower “corporate-­front organizations set up to create false credibility” by “undermining the public’s ability to counter their misleading rhetoric.”

Larry Bush, head of Friends of Ethics, a group that advocates for government transparency, was one of the measure’s strongest backers.

“Their claim is that there is a distinction between ‘advocacy’ and ‘lobbying,’” Bush said Tuesday in an email. “How many angels can dance on the head of that pin?”

He added, “They appear to only want to protect their own interests and not the interest of the citizens in knowing who is influencing city decisions.”

The law requires any person or business, including nonprofits and labor groups, who spend more than $2,500 a month to urge others to lobby city government to register with The City and disclose the activity. Amendments to the law are possible, but with a high-threshold, as specified in the ballot measure. Four of the five ethics commissioners would have to support any change followed by two­-thirds of the 11­-member Board of Supervisors.

Nonprofits argue there will be a “chilling effect” on the work by “mission-­driven, community organizations advocating for the public good” for several reasons. Among them, they argue smaller groups lack “the administrative capacity to ensure full compliance” and would want to avoid “‘gotcha’ complaints by political adversaries,” a commission staff memo said.

Nonprofit leaders said they already disclose their activities with the IRS. But supporters of the measure say those forms don’t disclose enough information and it comes more than a year later.

Some opponents argue a better approach is to make a distinction between so­-called “astroturf” nonprofits — groups fronting for corporations — versus bona fide grassroots nonprofits.

But Bush said, “I don’t see how you can come up with a distinction that holds up in court.”

Peter Cohen, co-­director of the San Francisco Council of Community Housing Organizations, is a staunch opponent of the measure. He said Tuesday that nonprofits will continue to make their case for an exemption but acknowledged the challenge.

“I think the political reality is it’s going to be a real long shot,” Cohen said.

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