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Seattle to require lobbying group registration, disclosure

December 16, 2020 GMT

SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle City Council has voted to require certain groups that spend money to build public pressure on city politicians to register and disclose their finances.

The City Council approved an ordinance this week establishing rules meant to shed light on such activities, and the rules are set to take effect in about six months, The Seattle Times reported. The vote was 8-1 with Councilmember Kshama Sawant opposed. She describing the rules as too onerous for grassroots groups and warning they could discourage political organizing by ordinary people.

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Council President M. Lorena González and other backers said the changes are needed because sophisticated groups have been able to spend on public politicking without disclosure requirements.

The new rules aren’t intended to hamstring grassroots organizers, the council members said, carving out an exemption for communications within membership groups.

“This has long been a gray area without any transparency,” González said.

Public lobbying efforts have emerged in recent years, using social media to rally people around their views and using tactics such as email blitzes to influence decisions at City Hall.

Groups have used such tactics to make noise over 2018’s tax on big businesses and this summer’s debate on police spending. There also has been public lobbying around a proposal that would allow judges and juries to dismiss misdemeanor crimes committed due to poverty, the news website PubliCola has reported.

People who lobby politicians directly already must register with the city and report whom they’re being paid by and how much. But groups that lobby City Hall indirectly, through the public, can operate somewhat in the dark. The people behind the groups don’t have to record who they are to the city, nor do they have to reveal where their money is coming from.

Recommended in January by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the new rules approved would apply to groups that spend at least $750 in a month (or $1,500 in three months) on “presenting a program to the public” to affect legislation.

The individuals behind a group would need to identify themselves and their contractors, and the group would be required to identify its donors (for contributions of $25 or more). The group also would be required to describe its purpose and would need to record its spending in monthly reports. Similar rules were adopted in Washington at the state level decades ago, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission executive director Wayne Barnett told Seattle council members last week.