Tampa City Council’s Lisa Montelione wants review of city ethics and lobbying rules in wake of Go Hillsborough controversy
First Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman called for tighter rules on lobbyists in light of the controversy over the Go Hillsborough contract with an engineering firm and its politically connected subcontractor.
Now the Tampa City Council is asking for a review of city lobbying regulations, too.
Some of the reasons for the city review overlap with what’s going on at the county, where the Go Hillsborough effort is mired in questions about public relations consultant Beth Leytham’s support for local elected officials and the work she’s done for local governments.
“This incident has pushed the timetable forward for me,” said council member Lisa Montelione, who Thursday night made a motion that the city look to update its definitions of and rules on lobbying. Her colleagues agreed, asking for a follow-up report on Nov. 5.
But Montelione said Friday she also has other reasons for wanting to take a look at the city’s ethics and lobbying rules.
She and City Council Attorney Martin Shelby have been talking about loopholes in the city’s ethics code for about a year, she said. She had planned to ask the council to take on the issue during a strategic planning session over the summer, but that was cancelled.
Then, in the wake of questions raised about Leytham by a series of reports by WTSP 10News, County Administrator Mike Merrill this week asked Sheriff David Gee to look at the county’s $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract with the Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm, which is paying Leytham $187,000. Within days, county officials were talking about lobbying reform.
“It brought it all back up to the surface,” Montelione said.
City Council members asked Shelby to consult with the county attorneys working on Hillsborough’s rules with an eye on making the city and county rules as similar as possible.
For example, Montelione said, it would make sense to have a registration system organized so a lobbyist who registered with the county would also be registered at City Hall. Something like that already happens with companies seeking small-business or women- or minority-owned business designation for local government contracts.
And Montelione is not just thinking about lobbying. She would like to see whistleblower protection provisions added to city codes. City employees covered by a union already are protected from retaliation if they call attention to official wrongdoing, she said, but managers aren’t, and they should be.
Montelione also would like to see lobbyist registration information made easily accessible to the public. And she supports the idea, proposed by Murman, to define as lobbying electronic communications, such as text messages and emails, sent by a person being paid to represent a company or cause.
Still, Montelione said, that kind of effort will require sorting through lots of questions. Should it count, for example, if one city asks another to reach out to a legislator on a particular issue?
“We get a lot of emails,” she said. “It's hard sometimes to discern between what's lobbying and what's called an ask: ‘Would you send a letter in support of XYZ happening?’ “
Thursday’s was the second City Council vote in a week related to the Go Hillsborough controversy.
On Sept. 17, the council voted to try to stop a $74,985 city contribution to the Go Hillsborough transit initiative, which has been building toward a possible referendum asking voters to consider a sales tax for transportation projects.
Two weeks earlier, council members approved that payment to Parsons Brinckerhoff. But they reconsidered after the County Commission asked for an audit of its contract with the firm. Since then, Merrill asked for the sheriff’s investigation, which he hoped would clear up any questions about the contract. But some officials have suggested there’s enough of a cloud over the contract to undermine the entire effort.
One official who hopes that isn’t happening is Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has participated as a member of the steering committee that developed the Go Hillsborough initiative.
Buckhorn defended Leytham, who worked on his 2011 and 2015 mayoral campaigns and who worked as a subcontractor to the consulting firm that wrote the InVision Tampa plan for the city’s urban core. Buckhorn, who had a tense on-camera interview with WTSP about Leytham, said he thought the reports that ignited the controversy were “an unfair portrayal.”
“This is a woman who has built a business, is talented and has relationships throughout the community,” Buckhorn said, but is also “being attacked by her competitors.”
“I think they’re trying to create a story that I don’t think exists,” he said.
Buckhorn said he appreciates Leytham’s advice, but said every time she’s been involved in city business, the selection and contracting process has been competitive, open and transparent.
Buckhorn said Merrill’s request to the sheriff came as surprise to him, “but that’s okay.” He hopes sheriff’s investigators will quickly render an opinion that the Go Hillsborough contract was procured legally, as county auditors did.
“Anything we can do to get rid of this distraction and get focused back on solving our transportation needs is going to be good for the community,” Buckhorn said. He said anti-transit activists are seizing on the same kind of “petty accusations” that derailed last year’s unsuccessful Greenlight Pinellas sales tax referendum.
“You can put all the sand in the gears that you want,” he said, but an under-performing transportation network “is our everyday reality, and we’ve got to find a way to deal with it.”