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City of Baltimore web portal aims to provide more transparency in local lobbying

The portal is the result of a new law that requires more disclosures and identification by lobbyists at City Hall.

Baltimore City Hall. (Photo by Flickr user Mr.TinDC, used via a Creative Commons license)

The City of Baltimore announced Wednesday that it created a web-based portal designed to provide information about lobbyists doing business with the city.

New ethics legislation that was passed recently requires lobbyists to file disclosure firms twice a year, which is an increase from annually, the City said.

As part of the measure, those disclosures are required to be posted publicly online.

“We believe that journalists and citizens should have access to what’s happening within city government,” City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who sponsored the legislation, said during the announcement at City Hall. “That when people get paid to come and lobby and advocate, that that is part of democratic process, but that we should all know what’s happening within our government.”

It’s an example of how digital tools can be used to make more information readily available to the public. Officials said the legislation was created as part of a law that also requires lobbyists to identify who they represent when meeting with officials, and says that penalties could include fines and a ban of up to three years for violating the law.

The legislation builds on a transparency measure that was passed in 2016 under now-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to create a registry of lobbyists. Previously, there was “no public reporting of who they were lobbying, what they were lobbying for and what they were doing when they came to City Hall,” Cohen said.

The online portal makes it easier for folks to follow the legislation and register

“By removing barriers and making the registration process more streamlined, we have helped create a better, more responsive and transparent government for the citizens of Baltimore,” Young said.

Cohen said the latest legislation was introduced under former mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned in May amid an investigation surrounding payments for children’s books from entities doing business with the city. Pugh refused to hold a public bill signing, Cohen said.

“What happened with Mayor Pugh can never happen again, and I believe this is an important and affirmative step to make sure we know when folks are meeting with public officials, what they’re going in for and what they’re doing,” Cohen said.

The bill was supported by open government organization Common Cause Maryland and Food and Water Watch, which has advocated for more affordable water service in the city and against corporate influence.

“Just as people have the right to know and are able to search how much money is being spent and by whom to elect our politicians, we all have the right to know who is spending what when it comes down to the decisions that truly matter after election day,” said Food and Water Watch Senior Maryland Organizer Rianna Eckel.

Common Cause Maryland Executive Director JoAnne Antoine said the legislation “is an example for other jurisdictions throughout the state that are looking to create greater acccessibility in their government.”

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