Online registry to reveal municipal lobbying

Toronto residents will soon be able to discover, with a few keystrokes, who is lobbying for what contracts at City Hall when the city introduces the first online lobbyist registry in Canada.

By offering the public access to information on interactions between lobbying groups and city officials, councillors hope to achieve a level of transparency that may help avoid fiascos such as the scandal over the MFP Financial Services Ltd. computer deal.

In that case, an initial $40-million computer leasing contract ballooned to more than $100 million. The inquiry into the scandal itself cost the city $19.2 million and lasted nearly three years.

While it may not be a fool-proof solution, “the registry will allow citizens to track negotiations and help establish a legitimate process,” said councillor Adam Giambrone, representing Ward 18 in Toronto’s Davenport Area.

Giambrone also chairs the committee overseeing the design of the lobbyist registry, and another committee that recently hired the city’s first lobbyist registrar.

The online registry is the first formal attempt at keeping track of lobbyists and their meetings with city officials in Canada, according to Giambrone.

“Torontonians should know who councillors and elected officials are meeting with, as well as the paid lobbyists on public policy issues,” said Mayor David Miller after the registry plan passed council vote late last week.

Under the scheme, any organization lobbying for a project with the city has to register its name and intent, as well as specify the names of city officials its members meet with.

This data will be available for free to people who log into the registry Web site. Free access to computers is available at City Hall, libraries and other public offices. Giambrone said an online format was chosen for ease of use and widespread availability.

A budget of more than $1 million a year has been initially allocated for the project. Over the next few months, the funds will be used to develop a Web-based registration system, implement procedures and protocols, and set up an office to administer the control framework.

The city has also yet to develop software for the registry. Giambrone said three options were being reviewed: building the software from scratch; buying an off-the-shelf product; or using software offered for free by the Province of Ontario.

“The province’s offer is enticing, but currently their software doesn’t conform to our data system and could present some problems in the long run.”

Last week the city council appointed Marilyn Abraham as Toronto’s first lobbyist registrar. Abraham, who served as registrar for the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario, also held various senior human resources roles in the province prior to her appointment.

Giambrone estimates the registry will be functional and available to the public by June.

Although the decision to set up the registry passed unanimously, some councillors were opposed to provisions that exempted unions from registering under certain circumstances.

For instance, if Canadian Auto Worker Union members lobby council to buy transit cars from a union shop, this fact would be disclosed. However, union members don’t need to register when discussing city labour contracts and health and safety issues, according to Miller.

Councillor Michael Walker, of Ward 22 in the St. Paul’s East area of the city, suggested that city employee unions should also be included in the registry

“With a force of 65,000 employees, and more than $4 billion in salaries, the unions represent a huge interest and influence,” he said.

But Giambrone said unions discussing workers’ health and safety issues with city officials “are just doing the job they were appointed for and are not lobbying.”

Read the commissioner Denise Bellamy’s 2005 report and recommendations to Toronto City Council, covering both the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry and the Toronto External Contracts Inquiry.

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