Cupertino Council Majority Moves to Reduce Transparency into Lobbyist Activity

At the July 6, 2023 City Council meeting, three Councilmembers (Wei, Fruen, and Mohan) approved first round changes weakening Cupertino’s lobbyist registration ordinance. The changes include a provision that allows lobbyists who are paid less than $5,000/quarter to avoid publicly disclosing their activity. Councilmembers Moore and Chao opposed the changes.

Cupertino’s Lobbyist Ordinance: A Brief History

In February 2021, the Cupertino Council enacted an ordinance that requires lobbyists to publicly disclose their activities. The term “lobbyist” included individuals, media, businesses, and select organizations that attempt to influence the government in exchange for paid compensation. This ordinance provides transparency to Cupertino residents around lobbying activity, and helps ensure that our city’s democratic processes are not unduly influenced by conflicts of interest. 

In July 2022, the League of Women Voters Cupertino Sunnyvale (LWVCS) filed a lawsuit challenging Cupertino’s Lobbyist Registration Ordinance. “When this ordinance was passed, there was no dispute from the League of Women Voters regarding this,” stated Councilmember Kitty Moore during the July 6th, 2023 City Council meeting. “Instead, a lawsuit was filed sometime around July 2022. We’ve now spent over $47K on outside attorney fees, and that is not including the work in the city attorney’s office. In the future, when we have an ordinance, and it’s approved… it would be my preference that an organization/individuals come to the city attorney and council and make the case for why the ordinance needs to be changed.”

In May 2023, the United States District Court – Northern District of California granted the City’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. However, by 2023, two new council members that oppose the lobbyist ordinance (Sheila Mohan and JR Fruen) had replaced the former Councilmembers who helped create it (Darcy Paul and Jon Willey). Mayor Wei, a LWVCS officer until just before the League filed its lawsuit against the City, also pivoted her position to oppose the lobbyist ordinance.

New Council Moves to Limit Lobbyist Ordinance

The new Council approved first round changes that reduce transparency around lobbyist activity. (Wei, Mohan, and Fruen voted YES; Chao and Moore voted NO) This means:

  • Expenditure Lobbyists will no longer be required to publicly disclose their activity (Expenditure lobbyists are defined as entities who pay others to lobby the City or elected officials on behalf of a position).

  • Media will no longer be required to disclose lobbying activity, regardless of who funds the media activity (Media includes newspapers, newsletters, a radio or television, and Internet publications)

  • Nonprofit and member benefit organizations will no longer be required to disclose their lobbying activity, regardless of who funds the nonprofit organizations.

  • Any lobbyist paid less than $5,000 per calendar quarter will not be required to register as such with the City of Cupertino.

A Comparison of Local Lobbyist Ordinances

One justification that staff made for the changes was to bring Cupertino’s lobbying ordinance in line with other local cities, counties, or the state. However, the lobbying ordinances in cities and counties closest to us are actually consistent with Cupertino’s current ordinance. For example, both Santa Clara County’s and San Jose’s lobbyist payment thresholds are $1,000 per consecutive three month period or $5,000 per year for expenditure lobbyists. In-house lobbyists who lobby for 10 hours or more in a consecutive 12-month period must also register.

During the July 6th meeting, Councilmember Chao disagreed with the usage of the State of California, with its population of 39 million people (via 2022 U.S. Census Bureau estimates), as a benchmark for the City of Cupertino. “For the entire state of California, the limit is $5,000 per quarter. For a tiny city of Cupertino, if the limit is $5,000 per period, I don’t think anyone would ever qualify,” stated Chao. 

A Loss of Transparency in Cupertino

The U.S. District Court upholds the 2021 lobbyist registration ordinance, dismissing a lawsuit filed against it by the League of Women Voters Cupertino Sunnyvale. However, the City chooses to disregard the Court’s ruling, and dismantle the ordinance by adding exemptions and raising threshold reporting amounts. 

From 2021 to 2023, the Cupertino City Council has shifted in sentiment from favoring transparency to shielding lobbyists more than the rest of the county. Failure to provide real accountability, and instead focusing only on partisan political mediocrity, further sacrifices quality governance at the expense of undisclosed pandering.

To note, Cupertino Facts does not pay any writers, and is driven 100% by the volunteer efforts of Cupertino residents.

The lobbyist registration ordinance will be discussed by Council again in September 2023.

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