Tallahassee City Hall: Number of registered lobbyists plummets
The number of lobbyists registered to do business at City Hall took an unexpected and precipitous plunge this year — prompting ethics watchdogs to renew their call to close a “consultant loophole” in Tallahassee ordinance.
Last year, 29 lobbyists representing clients from Honeywell to Publix and smaller companies in between registered to lobby city commissioners and staff. They paid their annual $25 registration fees and disclosed their clients and interests.
But so far this year, only six lobbyists have signed up, marking an 77% year-to-date drop and an all-time low in registration numbers since the city’s lobbying ordinance was enacted in 2011.
The sharp decline comes in the wake of actions city commissioners took last year — some against the advice of the Independent Ethics Board and ethics advocates — involving the city’s lobbying ordinance.
Commissioners in divided votes rejected a proposal to tighten the city’s definition of lobbying — a move the Ethics Board put forward in hopes of ensuring lobbyists properly register. They also signed off on a big increase in the annual cost to register, upping it to a whopping $500.
The anemic registration numbers raise questions about the effectiveness of the city’s lobbying ordinance and point to the possibility of unregistered lobbyists skirting city requirements. The city’s numbers pale in comparison with those of Leon County, where 45 lobbyists are currently registered, according to Clerk of Court records.
Tallahassee has a long and tortured history of playing fast and loose with lobbying — with former mayor Scott Maddox’s reign serving as the most extreme example. Maddox, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2019, and two others went to federal prison for bribes they arranged through a lobbying firm he secretly controlled for years under the city’s nose.
Ben Wilcox, a member of Citizens for Ethics Reform, which has long supported stronger lobbying laws and enforcement at the city, raised alarm bells about the drop in registrations during an Ethics Board meeting in late June. At the time, only four lobbyists had registered, though that number ticked up to six last week.
He noted previous reporting by the Tallahassee Democrat about lax lobbyist enforcement and the city’s murky description of lobbying that has allowed political consultants and others to exert influence without registering.
“To my way of thinking, the drop in registered lobbyists means more lobbyists are using the consultant loophole to avoid paying the fee and working in the background without disclosing their clients,” Wilcox said.
In September 2021, the Ethics Board recommended the City Commission adopt a number ordinance changes designed to strengthen lobbying regulations and address public concerns about backroom deal-making.
A top suggestion was changing what the board called the “somewhat circular narrative” of the city’s lobbying definitions. The city, the board pointed out, defines “lobbying” as work done by a lobbyist and a “lobbyist” as someone who lobbies.
The Ethics Board, created by a 2014 city charter amendment, recommended language explicitly defining the conduct of a lobbyist to eliminate any wiggle room in the law.
The proposal would have defined lobbyists as “all persons, firms or business entities” that sought to influence actions of city commissioners, the city manager or staff throughout the “entire decision-making process.” It would have applied only to individuals who are employed or retained by a principal and paid for their work.
“It is the opinion of the board that such an approach eliminates any ambiguity in the current ordinance, which will better protect those individuals and entities engaging city government and instill confidence with the public,” wrote attorney Carlos Rey, then chair of the Ethics Board.
During a March 2022 meeting, city commissioners voted 3-2 against adopting the recommendation or proceeding with a charter amendment that if approved by voters would give the Ethics Board jurisdiction over lobbyists. Commissioners Jeremy Matlow and Jack Porter voted in favor of the recommendations; Mayor John Dailey and Commissioners Curtis Richardson and Dianne Williams-Cox voted no.
In September 2022, city commissioners voted unanimously for other ordinance changes, including one that unceremoniously ended a requirement for lobbyists to report their compensation ranges. Despite concerns from the public, they also voted 3-2, with Porter and Matlow in dissent, to set registration fees at $500.
“Such an exorbitant fee will only further discourage lobbyists from registering,” warned Peter Butzin, a member of Citizens for Ethics Reform. “No jurisdiction at any level of government charges such an exorbitant fee.”
Leon County charges an annual $25 fee, in place since county commissioners adopted a lobbying ordinance in 2007. The Legislature requires lobbyists to register for each business or entity they represent, charging $50 for the first registration of the year and $20 for subsequent ones.
The number of lobbyists who register each year at the city fluctuated from 31 in 2018 to 51 in 2019 and back down to 29 last year, according to city records. From 2018 through 2022, the city saw an average of 37 lobbyists register annually.
The lobbyists came from a mix of small- and medium-sized shops to some of Florida’s most influential and highly compensated firms, including Ronald L. Book P.A., Capital City Consulting, GrayRobinson, Greenberg Traurig and The Southern Group.
Among all the lobbyists’ clients were major developers and land owners, including the St. Joe Company, Ghazvini family entities and the Boulos Corporation.
Lobbyists currently registered with the city include Floyd Self of Berger Singerman, whose client, Tallahassee Aviation Partners, is interested in expanding fixed-based operators at Tallahassee International Airport; Karen Walker of Holland & Knight, whose client, IPS Group, Inc, sells smart parking-meter systems; and Charles Dudley of Floridian Partners, LLC, which represents the St. Joe Company in an update to the Southwood Stormwater master plan.
Lobbyists who registered more recently include Gary Yordon of The Zachary Group, who represents Boulous Homes, LLC, and Megan Fay and Ron LaFace Jr., of Capital City Consulting, who represent American Traffic Solutions of Mesa, Arizona. ATS, doing business as Verra Mobility, makes school zone speed detection products. Fay and LaFace registered July 27.
Yordon, a media consultant who worked with Maddox a decade ago before branching out on his own, registered May 25 to represent Boulous Homes on the final site plan for Buckingham Gates, a 22-lot residential development slated to be built in an urban forest just north of Apalachee Parkway off Richardson Road.
The development drew organized opposition from residents worried about environmental harm, traffic and noise. The city’s development review committee gave conditional approval to a scaled-back version of Buckingham Gates earlier this year.
Nearly 30 of the lobbyists who registered this year with Leon County previously signed up to lobby at the city, too, but didn't this year, according to city and county records.
Members of the Ethics Board expressed concerns during their June 20 meeting. Ethics Board member Pat Kelly said he was “shocked” by the low registration numbers.
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“It can lead to unethical behavior,” said Kelly. “It can lead to a perception of an organization that doesn’t have high integrity. I think we knowing that have a responsibility to do something about it.”
However, the Ethics Board, which spent months on its earlier lobbying proposal only to see it voted down last year by city commissioners, ended up taking no action on lobbying.
Dailey, in an interview, said he was unsure why lobbyist registrations had dropped so much but indicated he was not concerned about it. He suggested the numbers might rebound once city commissioners return from summer break.
“I think that’s a good thing,” he said of the numbers. “What it means is that people do not feel like they need to go out and hire lobbyists to represent them, that maybe they just feel comfortable coming directly to their City Commission.”
Dailey said his office routinely instructs individuals that they need to register to lobby after meeting with them.
"We made that a policy in our office," the mayor said. "If you come and speak to us about about a particular product or some type of procurement, you obviously need to register, and we remind them of that on the way out the door."
Matlow said reducing fees or even making them free would get a lot more lobbyists “erring on the side of caution” and registering with the city. He added that a handful of individuals have contacted him about their clients but that after he reminded them of the lobbying ordinance, he didn't hear from them again.
“Anywhere there’s a billion-dollar budget, there’s people trying to lobby the government to get a piece of it,” Matlow said. “It doesn’t seem likely to me that all of a sudden, there’s no interest in doing business with the city of Tallahassee. I think it’s more likely that people aren’t registering.”
Contact Jeff Burlew at [email protected] and follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.A Tallahassee Democrat Investigation:A Tallahassee Democrat investigation:Contact Jeff Burlew at [email protected] and follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.