The Council of San Benito County Governments (COG) may engage a legislative advocate in Sacramento in 2021. The Board of Directors gave the green light to staff at its Dec. 21 meeting to explore the possibility of contracting with an advocate.
COG is the county’s transportation agency whose board of directors is made up of two Hollister City Council members, two San Benito County Supervisors and one San Juan Bautista City Council member.
Mary Gilbert, executive director of COG, said that while the meeting agenda packet states it would cost up to $100,000 annually for legislative advocacy services, she estimates the agency would spend about $30,000. She added that COG is limited to local funds to pay for the services.
“We don’t really have a source for that,” Gilbert said. “I’m considering that and maybe an opportunity to partner with the cities or the county or something like that.”
In her presentation, Gilbert said COG has access to an advocate through the Central Coast Coalition, of which COG is a member. She said the coalition was formed to advocate for the region’s concern and needs.
According to its website, the goal of the coalition is to encourage investment along the Highway 101 corridor because it’s a major economic asset to the state. It estimates that 150,000 vehicles use the corridor daily.
Gilbert clarified that a lobbyist and a legislative advocate differ in the services they can legally provide, though she could not provide specifics without further research.
“It’s not officially a lobbyist, it’s more advocacy and conversation,” Gilbert said, answering a question from Supervisor and COG Director Peter Hernandez. “There is a pretty fine line.”
Lobbying is defined as trying to influence the actions of public officials while advocacy is raising awareness of providing information in favor of an idea, cause or policy, according to the National Council of Nonprofits.
If directors deem it appropriate to pursue an advocate, a contract could be approved by the end of 2021.
Hollister Mayor and COG Director Ignacio Velazquez said while he doesn’t support contracting with lobbyists, this was an exception.
“I think in this situation where we are getting ready for such a big project we need some people on our side who are constantly lobbying for dollars, and as you point out, legislation if we need it,” Velazquez said. He added that it could ultimately be beneficial in addressing several chokepoints in San Benito County, such as the Highway 156/101 southbound ramp.
San Juan Bautista Councilwoman and COG Director Mary Edge said her only concern was identifying someone who was aware of the county’s needs.
“That’s my only concern, that we get someone that works for us,” Edge said.
County officials were unhappy with the last lobbyist hired—Stone Advocacy—back in 2017. The contract was terminated before it expired because the county saw no return on its investment.
Kim Stone, principal of the firm, reported advocating for Senate Bill 821, which is about counties gaining access to resident’s information from utility companies for emergency notifications, between April and December 2019.
Though she reported receiving $8,000 in the first quarter of 2018, she did not report any active lobbying efforts. She also reported receiving $8,000 from the county in the first quarter of 2019 but said she was “not registered to lobby in current session.”
Outgoing Supervisor and COG Director Jaime De La Cruz was one of two votes against hiring Stone. He told BenitoLink on Dec. 23 that hiring a lobbyist or advocate is only beneficial if the right person or firm is hired. He said experience was critical, and his advice to the COG board was to hold the person or firm accountable if it ends up hiring someone.
“My recommendation, my Christmas present to new board members is you have to stay on top of the group or individuals and ask for reports and make sure that person is on the agenda every meeting,” De La Cruz said.
He added that detailed questions must be asked and clear directions must be given.
“Need to hold them accountable,” De La Cruz said. “Make sure taxpayers money is protected.”
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