Fresno says lobbyists in D.C., Sacramento worth $200,000 cost

The Fresno BeeJanuary 6, 2013 

Sometime in the next few months, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin's administration will be asked to prove that the city's annual $200,000-plus lobbying effort is worth the money.

City Manager Mark Scott said he welcomes the chance to justify not only contracted lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, but a third on the city's staff as well.

There was a time when congressional representatives and state legislators handled such duties, but as the issues have become more complex and the competition among cities more pitched, professional lobbyists have grown more important for government agencies.

Scott said it is about "paying someone to help us know how to go about being competitive" in Congress, the Legislature and federal and state agency offices.

Fresno isn't alone in that thinking. Cities as big as Los Angeles and San Francisco and as small as Fowler and Tulare pay or have paid to have someone represent their interests in Sacramento or Washington -- or both places. Other cities across the nation do the same.

And, in terms of dollars, Fresno's annual federal lobbying $65,000 tab seems like a bargain.

Similarly sized Long Beach, for instance, paid $110,000 for a federal lobbyist last year and $150,000 in 2011, data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows. And that doesn't include an additional $120,000 in lobbying dollars spent over the two years by that city's water department.

Much-smaller Modesto, and similarly sized Anaheim, each spent $90,000 on federal lobbying last year. Sacramento's bill was more than $200,000.

It's worth it, said Randi Knott, intergovernmental relations officer for the city of Sacramento.

"The investment you put in the lobbyist will come back several fold," she said. "There is finite money, finite funds, no earmarks. It is incredibly important to have somebody to pitch your story about your community and bring back some of the tax money that is flowing out."

Gone are the days, Knott, Scott and others say, when a call to a congressional representative was sufficient. Others agreed, saying a paid advocate is the most efficient way of navigating both the federal and state bureaucracies.

But quantifying that need, and putting an actual dollar value on the service, is another matter.

City's D.C. lobbyist makes its case in memo

Last month, Len Simon, who heads the firm that lobbies on Fresno's behalf in Washington, wrote a four-page memo outlining the city's accomplishments in the nation's capital over the past four years.

In the memo's second sentence, Simon writes the successes are the shared work of Swearengin, Scott and the city's staff, as well as the City Council and "the members and staff of our Congressional delegation."

One of the first successes listed is "regional high-speed rail funding which totals $3.7 billion, but is centered in Fresno and the Central Valley."

Asked if Simon and Company should get credit for landing the first leg of the state's proposed high-speed rail project in the Valley, Scott said "no." But he did say Simon was part of the greater team that worked together to lobby the Obama administration.

It was the renewal of Simon's $65,000 annual contract that initially sparked the City Council to question if such contracts are the best use of city money in tight budget times.

Then and now, Scott said that Simon more than earns its $65,000, and Rose & Kindel, the city's Sacramento lobbyist, does the same for its $95,000 annual contract.

The tie that binds, Scott said, is Governmental Affairs Manager Katie Stevens, who made more than $66,000 in 2011 (the most recent salary figure available). She is the one who coordinates between the city's various departments, the lobbyists, the League of California Cities and the region's state and federal legislators. She writes grant applications.

Remove any of the three, Scott said, and Fresno would lose far more than it would gain from savings of not paying any of the three.

Simon's memo, in fact, is a laundry list of money that Fresno won and meetings with top federal officials the city scored.

There are "numerous visits" between Swearengin, her staff and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and his staff. There is $2.45 million for a Fresno Area Express "Bus Livability Grant" and several public safety grants, among them a $10.2 million Community Oriented Policing Services grant for hiring police officers.

Simon's memo says his firm, among other things, keeps daily tabs on federal agencies and communicates that to the city, pushes Fresno's needs to federal agencies, stays in contact with the Valley's congressional delegation and sets agendas and itineraries when city officials visit Washington.

In short, it helped those city successes.

"Any lobbyist worth their salt will provide weekly, quarterly and annual reports quantifying what they bring back, and also can quantify what they prevent," Sacramento's Scott said.

Scott and Stevens say Fresno's lobbyists do that -- and the reports show the investment is worthwhile.

Relying solely on elected representatives and their staffs at the state and federal levels would short change the city, they said -- especially in today's hyper-partisan political atmosphere. A lobbyist, they said, is non-partisan and should be able to talk with elected representatives from both sides of the aisle.

In addition, Scott said, there has been a change at the federal level since the demise of congressional earmarks, where the city could go to one of its elected officials to have a specific project put into the budget.

Now, a lot of that money is handed out via competitive grants, which require knowledge of the federal bureaucracy and how to pursue the money within that system.

It is a similar challenge in California, said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst and former Republican legislative aide.

In the state's post-Proposition 13 era, he said, many local funding decisions have been shifted to Sacramento. He recalled a joke that was popular during his time in former Gov. George Deukmejian's administration: " 'Governors come and go. The Department of Finance is forever, and they are always saying no.' In order to get anything, you've got to convince a bunch of bureaucrats."

That's where the lobbyist comes in, Quinn said. And with term limits, their role has grown even stronger because, as with governors, legislators also come and go.

The League of California Cities helps, Scott said, but it is spread thin representing cities across the state, and sometimes legislation can come out of nowhere that could only help -- or hurt -- a small minority of the state's cities.

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It's one reason that even small Valley towns, including Fowler and Avenal, have paid for a lobbyist.

Both those cities retained California Consulting for state-level lobbying. The firm is owned by former Assembly Member Steve Samuelian. Fowler, for instance, paid California Consulting around $50,000 from 2011 through 2012.

Still, lobbyists are only as good as the cities that hire them.

Richard Lehman, a former Valley congressman who now lobbies in Sacramento, said a lobbyist is a waste of money "if you don't have specific goals and things you want to accomplish. The entity that hires the lobbyist has to know how to use them just as much as having somebody who knows their way around."

Clovis retained a federal lobbyist in 2009 and 2010, but decided it wasn't worth it, Council Member Bob Whalen said.

The Center for Responsive Politics shows Clovis paid a lobbyist around $7,000 in 2009 and $30,000 in 2010. Reports show the lobbying was for the Highway 168 freeway extension, and seeking money for such things as groundwater recharge.

During the process, Whalen said, the city considered if the lobbyist would bring enough grant money to the city or more projects that would justify the expense.

"We closely monitored it," he said. "At some point in the analysis, we decided it wasn't worth the investment."

It also was a sensitive staffing question for Clovis, which at the time was laying off employees.

That is where Fresno finds itself.

Council questions Fresno's lobbying tab

The city continues to struggle to get its budget under control. City staff has been pared, the City Council imposed a one-year labor deal on bus drivers that mandates a 3% wage cut, and controversial moves to privatize commercial and residential trash hauling have been implemented.

Last month, it led Fresno City Council President Clint Olivier to ask if renewing the $65,000 Simon and Company contract was worth the cost. The questioning then grew to the worth of both Stevens' position and the Sacramento lobbyist.

Scott was incensed that council members would even question the expenditures.

In the end, at Council Member Lee Brand's urging, the council extended Simon and Company's contract six months -- to June 30. Between now and then, a council workshop will be conducted to see whether the positions are worth the price.

Brand said his research showed no clear pattern on how other cities handled lobbying. He also said Stevens' position didn't exist under former Mayor Alan Autry. Instead, Brand said, Swearengin's chief of staff, Georgeanne White, handled those duties when she was Autry's chief of staff.

"I'm not saying the expense isn't justified," Brand said of the city's spending on lobbyists. "I'm saying the question needs to be asked."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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