New Lobbying Regulations Reduce Voices
The motivation behind the reworking of ethics rules and regulations are sound: reduce corruption and undue influence by putting government decision making on a more open, honest path. But expanding the definition of what a lobbyist is and applying rules and oversight on non-profits better aimed at private industry is hindering organizations such as Friends. That muzzles our 16,000 members, volunteers, and online activists whose sole interest is to improve and protect the Chicago River for people, plants, and animals.
Ethics ordinance changes were unanimously approved earlier this year by the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, a key decision-maker in matters pertaining to the Chicago River system. As Friends' Policy Specialist Chelsey Grassfield told the board ahead of the changes, "The requirements to register, pay fees, and regularly report on our activities would create an unnecessary burden on our staff and organization. Elected officials such as yourselves should promote public participation in your processes, and oppose restrictions to this right."
As noted in a letter to the Chicago Board of Ethics by ACLU Illinois, the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, and the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, similar rules proposed by the city would undermine good governance by reducing participation and chilling even routine communication, advocacy, and ground-level organizing. There are fees to register and fines for non-compliance carry an onerous $1,000-$10,000/per day penalty.
In addition to the city, Cook County is also considering amendments to their lobbyist registration ordinances which will have the same chilling effect as the MWRD's, silencing the professionals that advocate on the behalf of, in Friends' case, clean water, environmental justice, healthy communities, and critical wildlife habitat, which the climate crisis makes more important than ever. Requiring nonprofits to register in this way could endanger funding as some philanthropic organizations exclude "lobbyists" for financial considerations.
We truly appreciate efforts to reduce corruption and support attempts to widen the voices on important matters. But these overly-aggressive approaches will limit the very voices the rules-writers profess to protect while still allowing almost unlimited access by the powerful and highly resourced. They need to be reexamined and amended.