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Santa Ana moves to increase transparency with lobbyist registration law

The iconic Santa Ana water tower.
The iconic Santa Ana water tower.
(Ben Brazil)

As Anaheim grapples with a corruption scandal, officials from nearby Santa Ana this week moved forward with a plan to encourage greater transparency by tracking paid lobbyists in the community.

The council unanimously gave initial approval to an ordinance that requires lobbyists to register with the city or face penalties. The ordinance is meant “to promote public confidence and trust, preserve the integrity of local government decision-making, and provide members of the community with access to information about persons and organizations who attempt to influence decisions of city government through the use of paid lobbyists,” a staff report says.

The issue has become all the more salient since an FBI investigation revealed dubious connections between the Anaheim government and powerful business interests. Since the corruption scandal was uncovered, former Mayor Harry Sidhu stepped down from the council and council members voted to terminate an Angel Stadium deal that Sidhu may have pushed through in exchange for a million dollars toward his campaign.

During the meeting, Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said that while the lobbyist disclosure law is a step in the right direction, the city needs to do more to prevent the kind of corruption uncovered in Anaheim.

“This is baseline, just disclosure,” Sarmiento said. “What we really need to get into if we want to make a difference is some campaign finance improvements and changes to our municipal code. These disclosures are fine. There’s plenty of loopholes to get around this ... This is a very, very small step in what I think needs to be done, given what our neighbors in Anaheim are experiencing right now.”

Under the ordinance, a lobbyist is considered to be a person, business or organization, including nonprofits, that receive at least $500 a month to communicate with a city official in an attempt to influence legislation. The ordinance requires lobbyists to register with the city clerk within 15 business days after becoming a lobbyist.

While each official voted in favor of the ordinance, some took issue with specific parts of the law.

Councilman Phil Bacerra wasn’t in favor of a portion of the ordinance that allows unregistered lobbyists to speak at public meetings if they state what business they work for. The new rule would give them a week to file the required registration after the fact.

“My main concern is why would we allow a lobbyist who is not registered as a lobbyist with the clerk to appear at a public meeting, or before the council or a commission, and then make a presentation?,” he said. “To me, this grace period is going to get exploited.”

Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan also had concerns with the same part of the ordinance because “often the hype and the issues, the articles, the blog posts, Facebook posts, all of those discussions are the next day.”

Along with two other amendments to the ordinance, Phan proposed that any unregistered lobbyists who speak at a meeting should be required to immediately register following their comment.

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