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New ethics policy toughens rules for lobbying Orange school leaders

This article first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. View original here
5 Jul
7:11 p.m. EST, July 3, 2012|By Lauren Roth, Orlando Sentinel
Up to a dozen times a month, people contact Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette hoping he can help them drum up business with the country's 10th-largest school district.
Starting this week, those phone calls, emails and meetings will be among many that are tracked and reported as part of a new school-district ethics and lobbying policy.
The new rules not only better align with city and county restrictions, they surpass them in some cases.
"It's good public policy. It errs on the side of transparency," said consultant Dick Batchelor, a former state lawmaker and close observer of the school district.
Orange County Public Schools, the largest government entity in Central Florida, works with about 700 vendors and spent about $863 million on a wide variety of goods and services last year, including textbooks, school buses, construction management and computers.
Many vendors reach out in the hopes of boosting their chances of getting a contract.
"Seventy, 80 percent of the people who come talk to me don't think they're lobbying, but they are," Sublette said.
Anyone who approaches a district decision-maker hoping to influence a current or future decision or policy for a business will be considered a lobbyist. Under the new policy, they will need to join a registry.
The district has had a lobbyist registry since 2009, but it had only one registrant until the district began considering policy changes last year. Batchelor is one of the 13 additional lobbyists who have registered since then.
Individuals who lobby a district employee or elected official without registering will receive a letter telling them to do so. Repeated noncompliance could lead to a ban on conducting business with the school district for up to three years. But penalties won't be harsh at first.
"For the first three months, we want to educate people," said district general counsel Woody Rodriguez. When people call requesting a meeting, they will be notified of the changes.
School Board members rewrote an old set of policies after Chief Operations Officer Mike Eugene culled the best ideas from dozens of other school districts and government entities.
The new policy also governs the behavior of officials and decision-makers in the district, restricting when they can accept gifts and meals and requiring the reporting of conflicts of interest. It also forbids district employees from profiting from products developed during work time.
But the portion dealing with lobbying practices is likely to have the largest immediate effect.
In addition to registering annually at a cost of $25, the policy also requires lobbyists to report their meetings with district officials and staff. But the district's policy goes further: Those who meet with lobbyists will also have to report the contacts.
"That check in the process makes our system unique and, hopefully, more transparent," Rodriguez said.
Lobbyists also will have to disclose any familial or business ties to School Board members or district employees and say for whom they are lobbying. And they'll have to file an annual expenditure report with the district reflecting the amount spent while lobbying on food and drink, entertainment, advertising and travel, among other expenses.
Often, the vendors who reach out to Sublette are those who feel shut out of the process.
"Most are frustrated. They have been knocking on the door for years or months and feel like it's a closed shop. They want access," he said.
He helps them get a meeting with the right person to pitch their product or service, because when vendors see School Board business as an entitlement, "that's bad for taxpayers," Sublette said.
"It hasn't been easy to see who we're meeting with," he said. "This is going to change things, I hope."
[email protected] or 407-420-5120. Follow her on Twitter @RothLauren.