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If you have ever written, or spoken, to your city councillor about a concern in your community, you may have thought you were exercising your rights as a citizen. Apparently not, at least if a proposal, to require non-profit organizations to register as lobbyists with the city, goes through.
Non-profit organizations, whether they are as large as LAMP or as small as a local residents group, do not lobby. By any common understanding or definition of the word, lobbying is done by an individual for the purpose of personal gain to themselves or who they represent. Community groups act without such motives. A group of residents for example, advocating for better transit are not doing it for personal gain. It is because they have an opinion to share with those who they elected. This is fundamental to any notion of living in a democratic state.
So, why is the city considering reducing your democratic rights? What is the problem they are trying to fix?
That is a question that is searching for an answer. I have been before the Lobbyist Registrar twice and perhaps those experiences can shed some light on the question.
The first was about ten years ago when the city squandered an opportunity and money that was needed to address the chronic shortage of recreational facilities for youth in our community. Rather than build the facility we needed, the city took designed funds from a developer and waited ten years to stick a gym on to a local high school and call it a community centre.
Coincidentally, I was invited to speak at a local church with the topic being community needs. I spoke about this recreational concern and, without any prompting from me, the church members decided to write to their local councillor.
Next thing I know, a complaint has been made to the lobbyist register accusing me of acting as an unregistered lobbyist. Of course the complaint was silly and I think city staff were even a bit embarrassed to have to investigate it.
While nothing came from this complaint, I interpreted it as an attempt, albeit an unsuccessful one, to silence me. Discussing recreational issues is a most legitimate activity for any community group to discuss. Giving city hall the ability to intimidate its citizens is not where we want our democracy to go.
The second occasion was recent. The city was reorganizing speech and language services, in a manner that has significantly reduced access to these services in our community, especially for low income children. LAMP obviously opposed this and were vocal in our opposition.
At one point in the process, the City put out a call, for those who wished to be considered as potential recipients of funding, to run its revamped service. LAMP excluded itself and did not apply. If we applied, and the rules are clear, we would have to refrain from making any comments about these changes. To apply means to be silenced. We also did not want to run the new service because it would be a significantly lesser service than we were previously offering children in our community.
So, we continued to speak out and, despite the fact that we were not a party to the application process, we were still charged by the city for acting as an illegal lobbyist and we faced a fine of up to $20,000.
We defended the action. We argued that we have an exemption under the city's own rules that exempts non-profits and, since we were not a party to the process, we had every right, under section 3 of the Charter, to comment on a matter of public policy. In my lawyer's opinion, we would win the Charter challenge. Then she asked me if I had the money to bankroll taking the City to the Supreme Court.
The City dropped the action. They did not comment on the constitutionality of their actions, but did agree that, by the City's own rules, non-profit organizations, like LAMP, are not subject to the rules governing lobbyists.
That will change if the plan to register non-profit organizations passes council. The lobbyist registrar can then be used by members of council to silence community opposition, unless local community groups are prepared to be charged and subjected to fines for contacting their elected representatives.
Somehow, the dynamic between the elected representative and the voter has been turned on its head. They are responsible to us, not the other way around. They are elected by us to hear and act on our concerns. If they want to restrict the voters’ access to them, perhaps it is them who needs rules governing their relationship to us. We do not need a code of conduct on how we should behave towards them.