In most cities across South Carolina, lobbyists could meet with local officials behind closed doors without anyone knowing it.
They could be on a golf course, or in an upscale restaurant, talking freely about policy decisions or political strategies.
And in places including Charleston, Greenville, Beaufort County and Myrtle Beach — they wouldn't be breaking the rules at all.
Why? Because there aren't any rules.
South Carolina's lobbying laws only apply to lobbyists in state government. It's up to cities, towns and counties to create their own systems to regulate lobbyists, if they see a need. So far, Columbia is one of the only cities that has done so.
That means lobbyists don't have to register or identify themselves to do their bosses' bidding in most city halls across the state. Elected officials and volunteers serving on boards and commissions don't have to report gifts they've accepted from lobbyists or any meetings they've had with them.
As a result, most residents in the Palmetto State have no way to know the degree to which companies or special-interest groups are working behind the scenes to influence local governments' decisions.
That lack of transparency could become especially problematic in growing cities such as Charleston, where more national and international companies are showing up to do business, according to Carla Miller, ethics director for the city of Jacksonville, Fla.
"The bigger your city is, the more complex it is," she said. "You need more help with the transparency."
That's likely why most big cities such as Chicago, Phoenix, New York and Philadelphia have local lobbying policies.
Miller helped set up Jacksonville's ethics commission in 2007 to monitor lobbying there. She also started cityethics.org, a leading resource for cities considering ethics and lobbying policies.
"If you have a strong lobbying registration system and you've thought out the loopholes, you could have the people determine the future of your city instead of the corporations who want to make money," she said.
Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said that's precisely why lobbying regulations are well overdue in the Charleston region.
"I think there’s a perception challenge in Charleston. We still see it as a village ... but if you look at it from an economic development perspective, we are a city," he said. "We shouldn’t be surprised when we start to see things change and lobbyists pop up on a number of different issues."
'People need to trust'
Organizations, businesses and individuals have a constitutional right to hire professionals well-versed in public policy to advocate on their behalf.
"Lobbying has been around as long as our form of government," Miller said. "Unfortunately, with big business starting to control more and more of our government, the people ... are up against huge moneyed interests."
Some of those interests have shown up recently in city and town halls along South Carolina's coast.
Lobbyists representing the plastics industry showed up to meetings on Folly Beach and in Beaufort County to argue against proposed bans on single-use plastic bags. Folly Beach passed a ban, and Beaufort County Council also voted to support one this month.
As Charleston wrestled with a new policy to regulate short-term rentals, lobbyists hired by the international booking platform HomeAway worked behind the scenes to meet with Planning Commission and City Council members.
City Councilman Bill Moody and commission members Harry Lesesne and Chris Fraser said they met with the lobbyists in one-on-one meetings but didn't see any problem with it.
"Our duty is to listen to all sides of a debate, no matter what it is," Lesesne said. "I don’t think hearing from HomeAway ... has any more sway on me than hearing from my friends who are affected and have their opinions."
Fraser agreed but opted against a follow-up meeting.
"After that, I thought about it and decided, 'You know what, I probably just don’t want to have those meetings anymore,'" he said. "If you want to give me a piece of paper in public and tell me how you feel with people standing around, that’s fine. But I don’t think it looks necessarily great if I’m meeting with them one-on-one."
Fraser and Lesesne said they would welcome new regulations to register and monitor lobbyists in the city.
"People need to trust that there’s transparency in what we’re doing every day," Fraser said. "And if there’s a question about that transparency, and there’s something we can do to make it clear that there is no inappropriate activity going on, then I would support that."
Who's in the room?
The S.C. Ethics Commission considers a lobbyist "any person who is employed, appointed, or retained, with or without compensation, by another person to influence by direct communication with public officials or public employees."
Lobbyists must register annually and disclose their income and expenditures. There are also strict rules for offering state officials gifts such as meals, lodging, entertainment and other things of value.
Steve Hamm, interim director of the commission, said the law helps the public stay informed about what's at stake in policy decisions.
"It gives you an idea of who’s in the room, more importantly why they’re in the room, and what position they might be intending to advance, slow down or stop," he said.
Disclosure laws also can prevent corruption, according to Daniel Auble, senior researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs opensecrets.org.
"In the absence of these rules, people will tend to do whatever they can get away with," he said. "You start to run into things like the same people trying to influence policies at the local level giving gifts ... to the people they're trying to influence."
Hamm said he's recently heard from several local officials interested in setting up their own ethics programs.
"They could use the state law as somewhat of a template to do that, and if they want to go further than that, we would be happy to help," he said.
Reba Campbell, deputy executive director of the S.C. Municipal Association, said she has received few questions about lobbying regulations and doubted the association would favor a statewide approach toward regulating local lobbying.
"We don’t think every city needs to go out and do it," she said. "That would have to be their decision based on their own circumstances and experiences. Circumstances of lobbying at the local level are so different than they are at the state level."
Hamm disagreed: "I think that lobbyists at the local level operate in some ways very similarly as they do over in the General Assembly."
He said everyone would benefit from a more transparent lobbying process.
"We all like to talk about transparency in our government," he said. "Lobbying, registration and disclosure laws are an integral part of that, and we ought to be encouraging it. It serves everybody’s interest."