Are You a Lobbyist? Maybe, According to New Broward County Ethics Ordinance

A town council member in Southwest Ranches has refused to talk to his constituents about town matters, citing a new ethics ordinance that was approved last Tuesday night by the Broward County Commission.

Bill Di Scipio, a Southwest Ranches resident, had been trying to set up a meeting with council member Steve Breitkreuz to discuss plans for a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility on the western edge of the town. Di Scipio and some other local residents have been banding together in opposition of the facility, which was first approved in a 2005 resolution passed by the Town Council.

Breitkreuz had offered to meet with some residents at a private home to discuss the detention facility. But on Thursday, he sent an email with a curious reason why he had to cancel.

He wrote:

Monday night would not work for me. I have a non-town commitment on that night. However, there is now a bigger issue. I am not sure if you have read about the ethics ordinance that was passed on first reading by the Broward County Commission on Tuesday evening. Basically they have defined a lobbyist as someone that wants to discuss a town issue, whether they are compensated or not. Therefore, basically all residents, if they wish to discuss ANY issue, other than something that only individually affects them, as a lobbyist. Before the conversation takes place, the lobbyist will need to register as a lobbyist and pay the lobbyist fee. (emphasis added) It is insanity!

Di Scipio responded:

No resolution has been adopted. It has no force. So, you can meet with us. 

Further, we are NOT lobbyists, we are resident taxpayers seeking redress of our local government. We will NEVER register as lobbyists so that we can discuss town issues with a direct impact on us. This is a continued assault on the democratic process and open government. I will not stand for this. 

Is it really possible that Broward County approved an ordinance -- which has not become law yet, as Di Scipio notes -- that says anyone who wants to discuss any issue is a "lobbyist" and must pay a fee and register as such? Has free speech and open democracy become so stained by corruption that we must cut off our thumbs of liberty, or however that Ben Franklin quote goes?

Let's read part of the new ordinance (available in full here):

"Elected officials should avoid even the appearance of impropriety in their interaction and dealings with lobbyists... To promote full and complete transparency, lobbyists... who intend to meet or otherwise communicate with an Elected Official for the purpose of engaging in lobbying activities... must legibly complete a contact log..."

OK, so what's a lobbyist, and what's lobbying?

"Lobbying... means a communication, by any means, from a lobbyist to a covered individual regarding any item that will foreseeably be decided by a final decision making authority...

"Lobbyist means a person who is retained, with or without compensation, for the purpose of lobbying... 'Lobbyist' does not include a person who is... an individual who communicates on his or her own behalf..."

Breitkreuz apparently took this to mean that anyone who wants to talk about something that doesn't "only individually affect them" qualifies as a "lobbyist." But the fact that the county amended the definitions to say that a lobbyist is "a person who is retained" may mean that you're a lobbyist only if somebody else hires you, as a paid worker or volunteer, to advocate the cause aside from personal interest. 

Check out the new ordinance if you're curious -- ethics in Broward County government is certainly a subject ripe for scrutiny. Meanwhile, we'll put a call out to some experts to see what's really going on here and just how much local officials like Breitkreuz are allowed to talk. Whether they want to is another matter.

Follow The Pulp on Facebook and on Twitter: @ThePulpBPB. Follow Stefan Kamph on Facebook and Twitter: @stefankamph.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph