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Hillsborough County commissioners toughen rules for lobbyists — but not themselves

TAMPA — Residents called them toothless and one of their own said it wasn't enough, but Hillsborough County commissioners still passed new rules and tougher penalties for lobbyists on Thursday.

The overhaul of the county lobbying ordinance comes months after the County Commission was left reeling from allegations that influential Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham helped steer an important $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract to one of her clients, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The engineering firm then hired Leytham as a subcontractor on the public outreach campaign for the proposed transportation sales tax.

Any day now, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is expected to release the findings of its investigation into the contract and how it was awarded.

In the meantime, commissioners moved unanimously to ensure something similar doesn't happen in the future.

"This is an important first step," Commissioner Sandy Murman said.

Under the approved changes, a lobbyist will be defined as anyone paid by an outside organization or company to discuss a current or future county issue with commissioners or staff — either in person or through other means of communication.

It also bars lobbyists from sending messages to commissioners on their personal devices.

Those provisions are a direct response to the Leytham controversy. Leytham said she was not a lobbyist, in part, because she communicated with commissioners via text message, and she often did so on their private cellphones.

Lobbyists will be required to register and sign in electronically before meetings with county commissioners or staff. The current system uses pen and carbon paper sign-in sheets. On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that more than one-in-three lobbyists last year failed to properly register their meeting with commissioners.

No action was taken against any lobbyists for violating the ordinance. Now, the County Attorney's Office will hire a new staff member dedicated to ensuring compliance with ordinances and investigating violations. The cost of that employee has not been determined.

A first offense will result in a warning. A second offense in the same year comes with a $250 fine. Third and fourth offenses would bring a $500 fine and suspensions of six and 12 months, respectively.

Murman first proposed changing the lobbying rules last year. During Thursday's meeting, Commissioner Ken Hagan successfully pushed amendments for longer suspensions. Both are at the center of the sheriff's investigation.

Leytham has a personal and political relationship with both commissioners, and in the weeks before the contract was awarded in 2014, she texted County Administrator Mike Merrill that she spoke with Hagan and Murman about the transportation initiative.

The new rules largely keep the onus on lobbyists to register their meetings with commissioners and staff. Little changes for commissioners.

Echoing concerns from several residents who spoke during the public hearing, Commissioner Victor Crist said that was backward. He likened the changes to a "dog and pony show" that left the real problem unaddressed.

"The buck stops in our office," Crist said, "and that's where the reform needs to be."

Crist briefly floated the idea of a $5,000 fine on commissioners, though it wasn't clear what the fine would be for and he never made a motion to pursue it. He ended up voting for the ordinance.

Murman shrugged off his criticisms.

"I think we are setting up the structure," she said. "We can fill in more blanks as we go along."

Also Thursday, the Tampa City Council voted to ask for an ordinance on March 17 that tracks the county's new lobbying and registration rules and maybe uses the same registration process.

"I want to make sure we are in alignment," said council member Lisa Montelione, who made the proposal. She does want enforcement and penalties to be done by the city's ethics officer and Ethics Commission.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough County commissioners toughen rules for lobbyists — but not themselves 01/21/16 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2016 2:25pm]
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