Three men with laptops and microphones laugh and talk while seated behind a dais. Behind them is a large projector screen.
Commissioners Francis Upton IV, Arvon Perteet, and Ryan Micik at a meeting of the Public Ethics Commission on August 9, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe. Credit: Eli Wolfe

Oakland’s elected officials and department heads make important decisions every day, like how to invest public dollars or whether to permit or deny specific businesses from operating in the city. Businesses and private individuals stand to make or lose money depending on the outcomes of these sorts of decisions.

Behind the scenes, lobbyists are constantly at work trying to influence city leaders to make decisions that are favorable to their clients. 

Here are a few quick examples of the kinds of lobbying that goes on in Oakland: The developers of a proposed coal export terminal in West Oakland employ a lobbyist to communicate with the City Council. Environmental groups that oppose this project, like the Sierra Club, have lobbied the city also. Becker Boards, the company that recently won a lucrative billboard agreement from the city, extensively communicated with the council and other leaders through its lobbyists. And Schnitzer Steel, the company whose scrap pile caught fire last night in West Oakland, has long employed lobbyists in the city.

For years, Oakland has required lobbyists to register with the city and disclose basic information about who is employing them, how much they’re paid, and who in the city they’ve contacted. According to a recent city report, Oakland lobbyists received a total of $823,464 in payments from their clients in 2022. That same year, lobbyists made 1,197 contacts with City officials, which can include emails and meetings.  

On Wednesday, the Oakland Public Ethics Commission agreed to send the City Council several recommendations to change to the Lobbyist Registration Act—the local law that governs influence-peddling activities. The commission oversees and enforces campaign finance and government transparency.

Most of the recommendations discussed last night are related to changes the City Council approved in June. At the commission’s suggestion, the council agreed to impose a $500 annual registration fee on lobbyists. The council also approved a $10 per day late fee for lobbyists who fail to submit their filings by certain deadlines. 

Unlike many other California cities, Oakland historically hasn’t charged lobbyists a fee for registering or for missing deadlines.

The commission wants to carve out some exceptions to these fees. They want to grant a fee waiver to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations with less than $750,000 in annual revenue, and a fee reduction for small businesses with less than $200,000 in annual revenue. The commission also agreed that late fees should be capped at $1,000, which is the maximum allowed under the Lobbyist Registration Act. The commission’s executive directive would be allowed to waive fees under $500 if the violations aren’t willful. 

The City Council must agree to any further changes to lobbying rules before they become law.

More about how lobbying works in Oakland—and should non-profits get a pass?

Right now there are 75 lobbyists registered with the city. Oakland defines a lobbyist as someone who is paid $1,000 or more in a month to communicate with city officials for the purpose of influencing governmental, legislative, or administrative actions. These are often professional lobbyists who work for lobbying firms like the Milo Group, Berg Davis Public Affairs, and Lighthouse Public Affairs.

Someone is also considered a lobbyist if their job duties include communicating directly or indirectly with city officials to influence government business. One example of this is Dave Kaval, the president of the A’s baseball team who sought a deal with the city to build a new ballpark and more at Howard Terminal.

According to a commission report, 21 lobbyists—about 30% of lobbyists in Oakland—represent some type of nonprofit organization. The report noted that several California jurisdictions, including Berkeley and San Francisco, provide some kind of fee waiver or exemption for lobbyists representing nonprofits or community organizations.

Commissioner Arvon Perteet questioned why Oakland can’t provide a fee waiver to other kinds of nonprofits, including 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6). The commission’s executive director, Nicolas Heidorn, noted that these latter two types of nonprofits are set up for the express purpose of political advocacy, whereas the primary purpose of 501(c)(3)s is charity.

Perteet was skeptical of this line of thinking. He pointed out that 501(c)(4)s include volunteer fire departments and rotary clubs. Examples of 501(c)(6) groups include the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and the Bridge Association of Realtors.

“Times have changed a lot,” Perteet said. “A lot of these 501(c)(3)s are involved in politics.”

Chair Ryan Micik opposed giving 501(c)(4)s a waiver, noting that many of them would still qualify for fee reductions as small organizations. Micik also pointed out that some of these groups include much larger organizations, including Americans for Prosperity, which is operated by the billionaire Koch family. After failing to secure enough votes to give fee waivers to 501(c)(4)s, Perteet cast the lone vote against sending the staff recommendation to the City Council.  

The commission also recommended that lobbyists be required to complete a training session on the Lobbyist Registration Act. Heidorn said this type of training Is very common in other cities, and it would most likely involve lobbyists watching an online video and certifying they watched it. The commission also wants to give itself the freedom in the future to require lobbyists to submit additional information to the city in quarterly reports—a power enjoyed by equivalent commissions in San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  

No public commenters spoke on the lobbying issue.

A backup plan now that “Democracy Dollars” won’t be available in 2024

The commission also approved a plan Wednesday to restore a version of the Limited Public Financing Act, using $155,000 in funds recently allocated by the City Council. This program provided some public funds to candidates running for office to lower the threshold for participating in local politics. 

Oakland voters scrapped this program last year when they approved Measure W, which was supposed to give eligible residents “Democracy Dollar” vouchers to spend on political campaigns starting in 2024. But a major budget crisis forced the City Council to postpone the program to 2026, creating concern that Oakland’s next election would have no public campaign finance system at all.  

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic,, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.