Wednesday, December 23, 2009
By Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

New rules for lobbying Pittsburgh government and contributing to its officials’ election campaigns kick in Jan. 1, and officials say those rules will change the way politics is done in the city.

“This is the beginning of a new era, in many ways, in Pittsburgh government,” said Controller Michael Lamb, as he and Councilman William Peduto yesterday announced the opening of lobbyist registration.

“We heard a lot over the last year or more about whether it’s pay to play on Grant Street,” he said, referring to suggestions that city contracts and campaign contributions are linked. “This is really geared to kind of shed light on that process.”

The legislation driving the changes was approved by council and signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in May, and officials have been working on implementation. Among the results is a one-page Lobbyist Registration Form.

Starting with the new year, anyone who spends more than 30 hours in any three-month period trying to influence city legislation will have to register with the controller’s office, and pay a $100 fee. Volunteers are exempted.
Mr. Peduto, who wrote the legislation, estimated that upwards of 50 people would have to register. Some are professional lobbyists, while others might interact with city government on a single issue.

A case in point: In recent weeks, unions and developers argued their positions on legislation demanding that certain workers at future city-backed developments earn at least the market-average wage. Legislation was unanimously approved Monday.

“There were people who did spend more than 30 hours trying to influence city council,” said Mr. Peduto. If something similar happens next year, those lobbying would all have to report their names, employers and who they represent. They will not have to report how much they spend trying to influence the city.

Companies seeking city contracts will have to disclose in their bids or proposals whether they have paid anyone to lobby the city on their behalf.

Campaign contributions have long been publicly disclosed, and the controller has put a searchable database on the Internet at www.openbookpittsburgh.com. Starting Jan. 1, for the first time, donations made to city candidates will be limited.

An individual will be allowed to give up to $1,000 in the primary and again in the general election to a council candidate, and $2,000 to a mayoral or controller candidate. A political action committee, like those representing unions or corporations, will be allowed to give double those amounts.

That will force candidates to solicit money from more donors, which means more people will have “a certain amount of access to public officials” that typically follows a campaign check, said Mr. Lamb. He said the broadening of the process is a good thing.

City officials also get gifts, and Ethics Code changes approved in May demand that they disclose any gift worth more than $100, unless they come from an immediate family member. The disclosures are supposed to be posted online, and as of yesterday, there was a lone gift listed — two Penguins tickets provided in November to an employee whose department could not be immediately determined.

“Whenever you have open books, you have open government. And whenever you have open government, it becomes more difficult to live in a world of pay to play.”