Land use and lobbyists
Majority of influence efforts directed at development plans; reporting discrepancies found
By Meg Tully
Many of them hired lawyers, engineers and other professionals to represent their interests as the commissioners moved forward with the plan, eventually slashing thousands of houses from areas previously planned for growth.
The new county lobbying ordinance was passed in February 2007 with exactly that in mind. It requires lobbyists to register, track and report how much compensation they were given, by whom, and for what projects.
The first set of reports were filed in 2008 and cover July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008.
In fact, it was the commissioners’ growth policies, including a controversial early version of the New Market plan, that caused a stir in the 2006 county election and prompted the lobbying requirement.
The ordinance applies to lobbying of commissioners and planning commission members.
The analysis reveals the two highest-paying clients, according to the reports, were Dominion Resources Inc., based in Richmond, Va., and Land Stewards LC.
The actual amount Dominion spent on lobbying is lower, however, because they filled out the reports differently than other lobbyists. Their reports did not specify how much was spent lobbying and how much was spent on other legal costs.
But it isn’t just developers that are represented by lobbyists. The list also includes nonprofit groups, trade associations and covers issues including solid waste management, affordable housing and the environment.
Commissioner John L. Thompson Jr. was the original proponent of the lobbying requirement.
“The public has a right to know the amount of money that changes hands in the course of influencing county officials,” Thompson said.
During the 2006 New Market Region Plan, Thompson said commissioners voted one way on zoning for about 20 properties, then reversed themselves on half of those a week later after calls from lobbyists and campaign contributors.
In one case, he noticed that a property owner and others with a financial interest in the property sent campaign contributions to two commissioners — when the 53-acre property was up for rezoning in the 2006 New Market Region Plan.
After Thompson and Commissioner Jan Gardner sent a letter to the property owner, he sent contributions to them as well.
They returned the checks, but Thompson said it underscored the need for ethics reform.
Thompson checks the lobbyist registration database from time to time to see who is representing which clients. But he expects the reports will be more important after the real estate market recovers from the economic downturn and new faces start turning up at Winchester Hall.
Lobbying registration is also necessary when people pay for newspaper ads or mass mailings encouraging people to communicate with commissioners about an issue.
For instance, the Frederick County Farm Bureau Inc. spent $2,712 on a newspaper ad about a proposed change to zoning and subdivision of farm lots that would affect its members.
Discrepancies in reporting
The analysis found several discrepancies in lobbyist reporting in the first year.
All lobbyists were required to fill out a standard form, but some used different methods.
For instance, some described the “subject matter” of their lobbying in great detail, identifying specific parcels or projects before county officials. Others wrote “land use” or left the subject matter section blank.
Still others filled out the forms incorrectly. The ordinance requires individual lobbyists to report how much they received for their work, even if the payment went to a law firm or business and did not go to them directly.
Prorating is an estimate of how much the individual charged for lobbying, based on an hourly rate and estimate of how much time was spent lobbying.
In some cases, lobbyists reported the entire amount their firm received and not the prorated amount for each individual.
Thus, when several lobbyists were registered for the same firm, they reported the same amount two or three times, even though the firm received only one payment.
Assistant county attorney Linda Thall, one of the primary people who administers the ordinance, said the County Ethics Commission typically investigates problems in reporting only if they are called to the commission’s attention.
The commission did not make an inquiry into Dominion’s forms, even though both lobbyists reported the same amount and the report stated it was not prorated.
Lobbyists for Dominion reported being paid almost $105,000 for a proposed gas compressor station project. The bulk of that figure is legal fees and other costs associated with the project, Dominion spokesman Robert E. Fulton said.”I have not prorated these fees, almost all of this amount is legal fees,” the reports from Dominion lobbyists Mark Viani and Kenneth Wire state. “Very little represents lobbying fees.”
Under the ordinance, the lobbyists should have a reported total compensation as “a prorated amount that is based on the time devoted by the person to lobbying compared to the time devoted to other employment activities.”
Thompson said there probably aren’t sanctions for allowing lobbyists for companies like Dominion to overreport payments.
Even though it does not allow the public to see exactly how much was spent lobbying, he said overdisclosure is generally acceptable.
“It’s better than it was before when there was no disclosure at all,” Thompson said.
More registered than were required to
Because it was the first year for the ordinance, many lobbyists registered even though the amount they were paid fell below the $2,500 threshold.
More than 50 people registered as lobbyists, and later filed reports showing they were paid nothing in compensation.
Those filers did so in an abundance of caution, said Krista McGowan, one of the top- grossing individual lobbyists.
Though she filed reports showing clients paid more than $40,000 for her services during that year, she still registered eight times unnecessarily.
She expects reduced registrations next year, with lobbyists waiting until they have earned $2,500 before turning in the paperwork to the county.
It costs $50 to register. The money is intended to pay administrative costs, Thompson said.
Between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008, the county collected $10,800 in registration fees, $5,350 so far in fiscal 2009.
Thall said the county estimates it spent more money than it collected the first year.
She said staff time will be reduced in future years, because in the first year they had to create the forms and train lobbyists. Thall also said that less time is needed when the number of registrations goes down.
Commissioner Charles Jenkins voted for the ordinance when it was first adopted, with reservations. He cautioned about creating a double standard between people who are better-known and frequently go before the commissioners, and those who may “fly beneath the radar screen,” such as nonprofits.
Well into the second year of the lobbyist requirements, Jenkins said they seemed to have caused few waves.
No one has complained to him about the process, and he said it appears few people have spent any time looking over the reports that were filed.
But Jenkins believes the requirements were a good thing because they help bolster public trust in the way local government works.
“I think it’s good for people to have that faith,” Jenkins said. “We all see stories in the national news.”
Friends of Frederick County, one of the registered lobbying groups, echoed his statements.
Executive Director Janice Wiles said the reporting process was simple.
The group advocates sustainable growth and citizen involvement.
“It provided a mechanism for transparency, which is key to good governance,” Wiles said.