Councilman’s proposal to reform Providence lobbying ordinance hits roadblock

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Providence city councilman’s proposal to force members of an influential advocacy group to register as lobbyists in the city was met with strong resistance Monday from his colleagues on the Council Ordinance Committee.

Councilman Sam Zurier is calling for the council to amend the city’s existing lobbyist ordinance to force members of what he considers “financially active” organizations to register as lobbyists, a plan he acknowledges is designed to force members of the Providence Apartment Association to wear badges in City Hall and file quarterly reports with the clerk’s office.

But several members of the ordinance committee said they’re concerned the proposal would deter other community groups from participating in city government – even though the policy focuses on organizations whose members make campaign contributions to the mayor or City Council.

“I feel like is a forced effort,” Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, Ward 11, said during the meeting. The committee did not vote on the proposal Monday.

Under the existing city lobbyist ordinance, a lobbyist is defined as “any person who seeks to influence a municipal decision as an appointed and compensated representative” of another organization. Lobbyists are required to wear identification badges in City Hall and file quarterly reports with the city clerk detailing their lobbying activities. Members of the Providence Apartment Association say they are exempt from registering because they are not compensated.

But Zurier’s proposal would count organizations with an affiliated political action committee as well as organizations whose president or board members have contributed at least $1,500 to local candidates in the previous four years as “financially active.” He claims the apartment group is benefiting from a “loophole” in the ordinance that requires them to be paid to register as lobbyists.

“There’s no question that they’re engaged in lobbying,” Zurier said.

Founded in 2010, the Providence Apartment Association has grown to nearly 500 landlords throughout the city. It is registered as a non-profit organization with the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office and its political action committee (PAC) is registered with the R.I. Board of Elections. Members pay between $50 and $200 per year in dues, according to its website.

The group largely focuses on reducing rental-property tax rates, which have grown exponentially since 2002 when city officials began charging landlords who don’t live in their home more than property owners who do. They’ve also advocated in opposition to tax-stabilization agreements for downtown apartment buildings, painting those tax breaks as “insider deals.”

As it stands now Providence’s owner-occupied property tax rate is $18.77 per $1,000 of assessed value and the non-owner-occupied rate to $31.91 per $1,000 of value. The group has successfully convinced the Elorza administration and the City Council to reduce the landlord rate by $1.84 per $1,000 of assessed value over the last two years.

But Majority Leader Bryan Principe, vice-chair of the Ordinance Committee, said he isn’t convinced members of the apartment group are lobbyists. He compared the group’s advocacy to his neighborhood’s effort to block the city from closing a school before he joined the City Council.

Ordinance Committee Chairman Terry Hassett said he agreed with the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which submitted a letter arguing that Zurier’s proposal would have a “chilling effect on robust community advocacy.”

Zurier, who reminded the committee that his proposal also calls for the city to lower its lobbyist registration fee from $25 to $5, said he would be willing to consider requiring only groups who have a separate political action committee to register as lobbyists.

If the Ordinance Committee doesn’t schedule a vote on the proposal, Zurier said he will try to gather enough voter signatures to force the council to hold a public hearing. The city’s Home Rule charter states that signatures from 50 qualified electors can force a public hearing on any ordinance.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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