A crazy case of red tape
March 1, 2008
By Bronwen Parsons
J ohn Gamble, P. Eng., president of Consulting Engineers of Ontario (CEO), is upset with new rules set by the city of Toronto for lobbying. In February, Toronto passed the Lobbyist Control Framework. ...
John Gamble, P. Eng., president of Consulting Engineers of Ontario (CEO), is upset with new rules set by the city of Toronto for lobbying. In February, Toronto passed the Lobbyist Control Framework. It affects anyone who communicates with city politicians, bureaucrats or staff on behalf of their own or clients’ interests.
Toronto is the only Canadian city to impose such lobbying rules at present. Hopefully it will be the last.
The city brought in the bylaw in an attempt to make transactions transparent, following some expensive scandals involving its suppliers.
Gamble says that consulting engineers have been “caught in the crossfire.” He supports more transparency in government transactions, but feels that the city has been too heavy handed. “The solution is completely disproportionate to the problem they are trying to solve,” he says.
The new rules will require that every time an individual or organization tries to communicate with a public office holder “about matters of interest or benefit to the lobbyist and their client, business or organization,” they must sign on to the city’s lobbyist registry. They also have to indicate whom they are contacting, what specific issues they wish to lobby over, and the time frame in which the lobbying will take place.
Thankfully, communications that are part of requests for proposals or required during the course of projects are exempt. But registration is required for unsolicited proposals, for some marketing activities, and for attempts to influence city policy. The rules apply to paid and volunteer lobbyists, and cover “any form of expressive contact including oral, written or electronic communication.” Fines are a hefty $25,000 for first conviction, and $100,000 for subsequent offences. Already, one consulting engineering firm has been told that they must register when they send out a firm brochure to their client contacts at city hall.
For consulting engineers and for CEO too, the rules mean just one more administrative headache. Gamble says that the association will have to register any time there’s a Toronto city liaison committee meeting, for example, or even when he calls city hall with a question on behalf of a member firm. “Do we not have the right to speak freely to public officials?” he asks.
Apparently not these days. What’s scary is that the lobbying rules even cover “oral communications,” which could have a remarkably chilling effect on social relations between consulting engineers and their municipal clients. Take a typical social reception. Will government officials be invited? And if so, will they find themselves ostracized in the corner of the room because consultants are afraid to speak to them?
Toronto’s intent to weed out corruption is a laudable goal, but Gamble is right that its approach is far too draconian. At the least there should be an easing of the rules for business and professional associations. Their very function and raison d’tre is to represent the interests of their members and to lobby on their behalf. They do so openly and as advocates for the entire membership, not in order to put dollars into the hands of any particular individual or firm.