Laws aimed at curb­ing pow­er­ful lob­by­ists go too far in tar­get­ing pub­lic-minded non­prof­its

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

Gov­ern­ment is sup­posed to lis­ten to the peo­ple, in­clud­ing the many non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that work to im­prove the pub­lic sphere.

But new rules on lob­by­ing at the Metropoli­tan Water Recla­ma­tion Dis­trict, first im­posed in Jan­uary, are mak­ing that much harder. They should be rewrit­ten. The city of Chicago has passed sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion but has put it on hold be­cause it cre­ated so many prob­lems. The city also should make sure to get this right.

Non­profit groups are a vi­tal force in the Chicago area. They have suc­cess­fully pushed for ev­ery­thing from com­mu­nity gar­dens and health­ful schools to the min­i­mum wage Fight for $15 and cleaner air and water. They make the Chicago area a bet­ter place, of­ten seek­ing reme­dies to his­toric in­jus­tices, and they should not be con­fused with the big pri­vate con­cerns, staffed with highly paid lob­by­ists, that seek strictly pri­vate gain.

But now, the new MWRD rules re­quire in­di­vid­u­als at non­prof­its to reg­is­ter as lob­by­ists and record all dis­cus­sions they have with of­fi­cials at gov­ern­ment agen­cies, even if that in­ter­ac­tion is noth­ing more than an­swer­ing the phone when an of­fi­cial calls for tech­ni­cal ad­vice. After one re­cent brief email ex­change, an em­ployee with an en­vi­ron­men­tal group was re­minded by a gov­ern­ment lawyer of the need to reg­is­ter her­self.

Only ‘good ac­tors’ are fol­low­ing law

If this were a case of an ex­tra bur­den fall­ing on non­prof­its so as to limit the abil­ity of the usual po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers to cut deals be­hind closed doors, that would be one thing. But so far, 100% — yes, ev­ery sin­gle one — of the con­tacts recorded un­der the new law at the MWRD have in­volved non­prof­its. As of last month, eight of the 10 “lob­by­ists” registered on the MWRD site work for non­prof­its, in­clud­ing the Metropoli­tan Plan­ning Coun­cil, the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy and the Healthy Schools Cam­paign. One pub­lic of­fi­cial told us that’s be­cause only “the good ac­tors” are even pay­ing at­ten­tion to the new law.

The an­nual reg­is­tra­tion fee of $300 per per­son might not seem like much, but it is a bur­den to a small non­profit, es­pe­cially an all-vol­un­teer group that has no bud­get at all. Sev­eral work­ers at a non­profit might be re­quired to reg­is­ter, and the same fees might have to be paid over again to more than one gov­ern­ment agency. The costs add up quickly.

Also bur­den­some is the ad­di­tional pa­per­work, which takes time away from do­ing the ac­tual work of a non­profit. Cheryl John­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Peo­ple for Com­mu­nity Re­cov­ery, told us that her small South­east Side or­ga­ni­za­tion will have to do ad­di­tional fundrais­ing just to hire some­one to han­dle the ex­tra pa­per­work.

Per­haps what wor­ries small non­prof­its the most, though, is the threat of fines of hun­dreds of dol­lars a day for fail­ing to com­ply with the im­prac­ti­cal new lob­by­ing rules, some­thing that could put a non­profit out of busi­ness. Also, in­di­vid­u­als at non­prof­its can face per­sonal li­a­bil­ity.

Fight over power plants lasted 12 years

A fight by non­profit en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist groups, for ex­am­ple, to close the coal-burn­ing Fisk and Craw­ford power plants in Chicago lasted 12 years. That’s a lot of fi­nan­cial ex­po­sure if author­i­ties de­cided one or more of the non­prof­its fight­ing the good cause failed to re­port their ac­tiv­i­ties — even some­thing as min­i­mal as an­swer­ing a phone call — prop­erly. Some non­prof­its now are de­clin­ing in­vi­ta­tions to join task forces be­cause they don’t want to risk be­ing fined.

“It is chill­ing,” one en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist told us. “We need this fixed.”

Kim­berly Wasser­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lit­tle Vil­lage En­vi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Or­ga­ni­za­tion, said that just be­cause it might be a chal­lenge for gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to sort out who’s a gen­uine non­profit and who’s obliquely do­ing the bid­ding of a profit-driven busi­ness or in­dus­try is no rea­son to lump of­fi­cials of non­prof­its with pri­vate-sec­tor lob­by­ists.

“For us, a lot of the prob­lem is a lack of clar­ity,” she said. “If an al­der­man shows up to your event un­in­vited, is that lob­by­ing?”

Many health, en­vi­ron­men­tal vic­to­ries started with non­prof­its

Many pub­lic health and en­vi­ron­men­tal vic­to­ries in the Chicago area in re­cent years be­gan as cam­paigns by non­prof­its, some of which also pro­vided con­tin­ued tech­ni­cal ad­vice. School­yard gar­dens owe much to the ef­forts of the Space to Grow pro­gram. Non­prof­its were a driv­ing force be­hind pro­grams to re­duce flood­ing and im­prove water qual­ity.

Sim­i­lar ef­forts in the fu­ture, which un­de­ni­ably would ben­e­fit the Chicago area, are now at risk.

“If the goal is to re­duce the power of spe­cial in­ter­ests, you don’t want to shut peo­ple out of the process,” said Jack Darin, di­rec­tor of the Sierra Club’s Illi­nois chap­ter. “Non­prof­its are the way many peo­ple find their way into the process.”

Re­cent rev­e­la­tions about in­sider deal­ing by an army of lob­by­ists for ComEd nat­u­rally have made elected of­fi­cials wary of any changes in the rules that might ap­pear to di­min­ish trans­parency in gov­ern­ment. And we’re all for trans­parency.

But the new rules should make sen­si­ble dis­tinc­tions, spar­ing the low-bud­get non­prof­its whose aim is to make things bet­ter for all of us.


Ac­tivists and non­profit groups worked for years to close the coal-burn­ing Fisk Gen­er­a­tion Sta­tion in Pilsen (above) and the Craw­ford Gen­er­a­tion Sta­tion in South Lawn­dale.

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