Metro Louisville

Louisville Metro Council is considering an ordinance that sponsors hope will generate more transparency from paid lobbyists and other businesses and interest groups that try to influence local legislation. The ordinance would also bar council members from profiting off of lobbying their colleagues immediately after leaving office.

Under the proposal authored by District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander, a Democrat, anyone who’s paid to influence the decisions of Louisville Metro Council would have to register as a lobbyist.

That would involve filling out a registration statement listing their name, address and employment information, similar to what’s required at the state level. Law firms, businesses or interest groups that employ a lobbyist would also have to file a statement outlining what legislation they are trying to influence.

Hollander said the public should have a better understanding of what goes on in City Hall and who influences local policy-making.

“We have a $1.3 billion budget, and I think any Metro Council member would tell you they’ve heard from lobbyists,” he said. “We hear from lobbyists on a very regular basis on a variety of things. Just letting the public know who’s lobbying, I think, is important and transparent.”

The proposal is currently being considered by Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee. In addition to registering, lobbyists and their employers would also be required to file paperwork any time they spend money on behalf of an elected official, a candidate for office or their immediate family members. That includes spending on events, food and drinks and advertising for or against legislation. The lobbyist would also have to disclose how much they’re paid.

If a city official asks for feedback or input from an outside group or individual, their response wouldn’t be considered lobbying.

Perhaps the most consequential part of the proposed ordinance is the “cooling off” period, also known as a revolving door prohibition. Elected officials, including the mayor and Metro Council members, would be barred from taking a job lobbying city government for two years after leaving office. That mirrors similar restrictions on legislators in the Kentucky General Assembly.

“The idea is that someone who is intimately knowledgeable about the system and individuals in a government have an unfair advantage [over concerned residents],” Hollander said. “The ‘cooling off’ period limits that advantage.”

This ordinance is just one of a package of proposals Hollander put forward earlier this year aimed at increasing transparency in local government. In March, Metro Council approved a measure requiring elected officials and city leaders to make yearly disclosures of their financial and business interests. Another ordinance prohibiting council members from having private conversations with developers about zoning decisions is currently stalled in committee.

Hollander introduced the trio of ordinances in January and February, after a lawsuit against some Metro Council members alleging corruption and favoritism became public. Emails released as part of the litigation appeared to show District 26 Council Member Brent Ackerson, a Democrat, working behind the scenes with a developer to push through an apartment project over the objections of neighbors and the city’s Planning Commission.

But Hollander said his push for greater transparency was only partially in response to that lawsuit. He said he’s been wanting to place some limits on lobbying since he was a freshman legislator in 2015.

“I was surprised that former Metro Council members were lobbying members of Metro Council within a year after leaving office,” he said. “My comment was, ‘Can you do that?’ and the answer was: ‘There’s no regulation on lobbying here, at all.’”

Under the proposed lobbying rules, Louisville Metro’s Ethics Commission would be responsible for accepting the registration paperwork and investigating violations. Anyone found to be intentionally violating the new rules could face a formal censure and a fine of up to $500.

Who should qualify as a lobbyist?

Louisville Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee is expected to hold a special discussion about the ordinance Tuesday evening.

The legislation was debated briefly at a previous meeting of the committee on June 14. At that meeting, some council members raised concerns about how lobbyists are defined in the proposed ordinance, and the potential for unintended consequences.

Nicole George, a Democrat representing District 21 in the South End, said that while she was “generally supportive” of the ordinance, she was concerned that it doesn’t give consideration to small nonprofits and businesses.

“The way [the ordinance] is currently written, it’s very broad,” George said. “It treats all activities of communication with local government as the same, provided someone is being paid.”

George argued that a nonprofit with a handful of employees could ostensibly be considered a lobbyist under the proposal if they reach out to Metro Council a few times each year about funding or issues affecting their work. She said there doesn’t seem to be much public interest around the activities of these small groups who advocate for things like street cleanings or sidewalk extensions.

If the ordinance passes as-is, George is also concerned the broad registration requirements will stifle some participation, she said.

“I never want a nonprofit or a small business to have to hesitate to pick up the phone and say ‘Can I reach out on an issue like LED street light conversions?” she said. “What my experience has taught me is that oftentimes when things aren’t clear to people, they will just err on the side of just not reaching out because they don’t want to get in trouble.”

George is advocating for amendments to the proposed lobbying regulations that would define a lobbyist as someone who is paid to spend more than 5% of their time influencing local government decisions by a business or group with an annual budget of more than $1 million. She said that would address her concerns while also increasing transparency around the lobbying activities of people or groups with significant money and power.

Hollander, who is sponsoring the ordinance alongside fellow Democrat Cassie Chambers Armstrong of District 8, said he doesn’t agree businesses and nonprofits with budgets smaller than $1 million should be exempt.

“I think transparency is important no matter what your size is,” he said.

Hollander said recent changes to the proposed ordinance make it clear that “this applies to paid lobbyists,” not “grassroots work.”

One of those changes was adding a list of who is not considered a lobbyist. That includes a “private citizen who expresses a personal opinion…or who assembles together with other private individuals for the common good…and who receives no compensation for lobbying other than ‘lost time.’”

Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee will decide whether to recommend approving the ordinance before it can go before the full body for a final vote.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.