Don McLean is an activist with Citizens at City Hall, a local politics watchdog group. 

Who is meeting with who behind closed doors at city hall or at some fancy restaurant or high-end golf clubhouse?

Major city decision-making and specific revelations in the last few years both suggest plenty of secret and apparently effective lobbying is taking place. That’s underlined by city council’s seven-year resistance to establishing a Hamilton lobbyist registrya simple transparency tool that already exists nationally and provincially as well as in the cities of Toronto and Ottawa.

'The public gets glimpses of what’s going on when one or two principled councillors refuse to participate.' - Don McLean

A central function of city governments is to decide land use. Despite many pious statements against urban sprawl, council continues to expand the urban boundary onto foodlands – 2500 acres in the Stoney Creek Urban Boundary Expansion, over 1700 acres for the Aerotropolis, and another 2500 acres planned in the Elfrida area. Land speculators clean up on these expansions, as they did on over $10 million in city purchases for airport expansion (at an average of $56,000 an acre).

The public gets glimpses of what’s going on when one or two principled councillors refuse to participate. In 2012, for example, Brian McHattie and Brad Clark publicly rejected a “tradition” of twice-annual private dinners with the Hamilton-Halton Home Builders Association that included both councillors and senior staff.

Later that year Clark revealed he’s refused numerous meal invitations from developers and Brenda Johnson said she’s received gifts that she diverts to charities. Presumably such gratuities would not be offered at all if everyone were turning them down.

Enbridge privately lobbied councillors

We also know Enbridge decided private lobbying was preferable to a public presentation to council, and at least five councillors agreed to meet with the pipeline company behind closed doors. Again, this only came out because some councillors refused to meet with the company.

Even past council decisions to hire lobbyists to represent the city have been cloaked in secrecy, and in at least one instance had the taxpayers unknowingly paying the wife of the mayor’s executive assistant.

We know that the majority of campaign donations come from businesses whose profits partly depend on city council decisions. Whether such gifts open the doors of city hall decision-makers is also not currently visible to citizens.

The city of Toronto has had a lobbyist registry since 2007. It reports over 5000 specific instances of lobbying each year on behalf of hundreds of companies. It is well-established, accepted and successful, but the proposed registry in Hamilton avoids many of its key features including a guiding statement of principles, a lobbyist code of conduct and the requirement to report each instance of lobbying.

Hamilton’s proposal also adds special rules such as exempting lobbying done by a councillor’s constituents. It also won’t apply to backroom negotiations if following the bylaw is “expected to prejudice the economic interests … or the competitive position of the city.”

And after seven years, even this watered down version was quietly abandoned in February. It was only revived after exposure that councillors had shamefully misled a citizen volunteer about the status of the bylaw.

Someone has something to hide.