Lobbyists never really had a chance.
In fact, the mere term “lobbyist” tends to conjure up images of slicked-back hair, briefcases full of cash, expensive suits, and closed-door meetings in smoke-filled rooms.
In a December 2013 Gallup poll, respondents were asked to rate the “honesty and ethical standards” of various professions. Lobbyists had the absolute worst rankings—below lawyers, car salespeople, members of Congress, and even reporters.
Nonetheless, lobbyists are firmly entrenched in the machinations of American government. Though they exert the most extensive influence in Washington, D.C., lobbyists play active roles in communities across the country.
In relatively small San Luis Obispo County—with only seven incorporated cities and a total population of 269,637 as of the 2010 U.S. Census—federal lobbyists still play a substantial role.
In the course of reporting this story, New Times examined lobbying disclosure records, interviewed several lobbyists, and spoke with leaders from all of the county’s cities and districts.
Though the practice of lobbying (attempting to influence government-made decisions) has been around for hundreds of years, federal lobbying records only date back to the late 1990s, when the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 kick-started the reporting of such activities.
New Times obtained data from the Senate Office of Public Records, widely considered the most accurate source of lobbying information. Most disclosure forms only require lobbyists to estimate the amount of money they’ve received from clients to the nearest $5,000 or $10,000—making exact figures hard to come by.
That said, by adding up all the estimated monetary figures from available reports, New Times was able to produce a reasonably accurate snapshot of federal lobbying spending in SLO County.
In total, six local governments have spent money on federal lobbying: San Luis Obispo County, Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, and the Community Services Districts in Nipomo, Los Osos, and Cambria.
In terms of total approximate expenditure, the county ($610,000) is the leader, followed by Cambria ($565,000), Pismo Beach ($330,000), Nipomo ($120,000), and Los Osos ($118,000).
Morro Bay has the longest continuous federal lobbying record in the county (dating back to August 1999), but 33 of their lobbying reports were filed as “less than $10,000” or “less than $5,000,” making it difficult to estimate spending accurately.
Morro Bay City Clerk Jamie Boucher said the city has spent $8,400 per year in recent years for a federal lobbyist to advocate on harbor, fishery, and dredging issues.
Interestingly, none of the county’s three largest cities by population—San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and Atascadero—has directly spent money on federal lobbying. Many of the county’s smaller CSDs told New Times they didn’t have the money to pay for a federal lobbyist.
That said, lobbying still goes on at the state level in Sacramento, and several cities and districts told New Times that they depend on indirect advocacy and lobbying from such organizations as the League of California Cities.
Several Washington-based lobbying firms have represented multiple SLO County governments, including Van Scoyoc Associates (Nipomo, Pismo Beach, Cambria), Will & Carlson (Los Osos, Cambria), The Ferguson Group (SLO County, Cambria), and Marlowe & Company (Nipomo, Pismo Beach).
When asked for comment on the expenditures and the general practice of federal lobbying in SLO County, responses from lobbyists and local government officials were all over the map.
“We can’t change Washington, and our congressional delegation in California represents a ton of people,” said SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill. “It makes sense to have a lobbyist to make our voice heard in D.C.”
Hill said that the Los Osos sewer project and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant are the county’s two biggest federal lobbying expenditures with their firm, The Ferguson Group.
“It’s kind of like paying for a guide to get in front of the right people,” Hill said. “There has been some desire to cut the lobbying budget at some times, but from my perspective, it’s worth it.”
Nipomo CSD General Manager Michael LeBrun said his community’s lobbying efforts were expensive and ultimately unsuccessful.
For their supplemental water pipeline project, which is currently underway, LeBrun said the district spent “close to $150,000” from January 2008 to October 2010 on federal lobbying services from Marlowe & Company and Van Scoyoc Associates.
“We wanted a grant for the whole kit and caboodle, but we didn’t get that—our lobbyist was helpful, but didn’t get us any money,” LeBrun said. “It’s not fair to have a ‘if you didn’t get us money, you didn’t do your job’ attitude with lobbyists. I wish it worked that way, but it doesn’t.
“With lobbying in Washington, you have to pay to play,” LeBrun said. “It’s really expensive, and it’s not a type of relationship we can afford as a regular mode of business.”
Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis defended his city’s spending on Greg Burns, a federal lobbyist who has advocated continuously for the city since 2006. Burns’ current firm—Van Scoyoc Associates—received a $46,800 annual contract for federal lobbying services from the city on Jan. 7.
“I think you can’t afford not to have a lobbyist,” Lewis said. “Greg and his firm have been very helpful to Pismo Beach, and I think our investment in him has paid great dividends.”
Lewis pointed to several projects for which he said Burns has been “instrumental” in securing federal monies: the city’s emergency services radio repeater towers, a shoreline protection study, and various shoreline protection projects.
“When you add those up, that’s several million dollars the city won’t be paying,” Lewis said. “We are forward thinking and willing to invest resources, but some communities may not have those resources.”
When reached for comment, Burns confirmed that he’s lobbied in Pismo Beach, Nipomo, and Cambria, but declined to elaborate on specifics.
“I think these communities appreciate and value my work, and I’m proud of that work,” Burns told New Times. “Just because these communities are small doesn’t mean they can’t have a voice in D.C.”
Other lobbyists were also reticent to speak about their work. Mike Miller—who’s lobbied for Cambria and SLO County—declined to comment. Several other Washington lobbying firms didn’t return phone calls and emails from New Times.
On the local level, the Cambria CSD declined to comment on its federal lobbying spending. Los Osos CSD General Manager Kathy Kivley said she was unaware of anyone on her staff who would be able to comment on the district’s federal lobbying spending.
Howard Marlowe—president of Marlowe & Company, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists, and a lobbyist with more than 30 years of experience—said that he’s proud of his profession, though lobbying is not without its flaws.
“I think we should be increasing disclosure and updating our lobbying laws, because there’s a staggering amount of money involved, and it’s not very transparent,” Marlowe said. “That said, I’m proud to represent the folks that we represent.”
Marlowe said that some firms “lobby by selling influence and access,” but his firm sells “knowledge and expertise” with navigating complex bureaucracies and government processes.
“People don’t have to pay us, but they’re not going to be effective on their own,” Marlowe said. “They can pick up the phone and say something, but who’s going to follow up on that?”
Marlowe said his firm is adept at sniffing out funding in the post-earmark world, but realizes that—by relying on small, local governments as clients—his business is subject to a pervasive “what have you done for us lately?” attitude.
“We know that we’re very low on the public trust scale,” Marlowe said. “If they can’t justify it, our clients are going to dump us.”
Contact Staff Writer Rhys Heyden at firstname.lastname@example.org.