To interview mayor, reporters must register as lobbyists

Jamie Schuman | Newsgathering | Feature | October 14, 2011

A South Florida mayor pledged this week not to speak to reporters unless they register as lobbyists.

Under a new county ethics code, all elected city officials in Broward County, Florida must record the names of any lobbyists with whom they meet. To Lauderhill Mayor Richard Kaplan, that includes reporters.

“Though reporters do not necessarily consider what they do is lobbying, their work is provided to the editors who use their research to write editorials,” Kaplan wrote in an email to a Sun-Sentinel reporter. Editors try to influence the decision-making process indirectly, which, Kaplan wrote, is lobbying.

Reporters can “come to meetings and write about what happens there,” Kaplan wrote, but they would need to register as lobbyists to speak to him unless the code is clarified.

The ethics code does not go into effect until January 2, but Sun-Sentinel reporters have no plans to register in the meantime, said Brittany Wallman, who covers Broward County government for the paper. “There’s no way in hell that I’m going to fill any lobbying paperwork out,” she said. “We’re not lobbyists. We don’t make as much money as lobbyists.”

Andrew Meyers, chief appellate counsel for Broward County, agreed that reporters are not lobbyists, and said his office does not plan to clarify the code. “We believe it is very clear that reporters are not considered lobbyists under the code of ethics,” he said.

According to a draft version of the code, lobbying is communication that “seeks to influence, convince or persuade” covered individuals to support or oppose an item. The term mainly refers to people who are retained to speak on behalf of private commercial interests, Meyers said.

Kaplan did not respond to interview requests on Friday. A colleague said the mayor was on vacation.

Kaplan did write in an email the Sun-Sentinel on Friday that he is one of the county's more accessible elected officials. "I am not trying to hide from the press or public," he said. "I have never before, and hope to never have to. The law as written only concerns how we will be able to communicate and my position of being risk adverse."

But David Bralow, assistant general counsel at the Tribune Company, which owns the Sun-Sentinel, called the law as written possibly unconstitutional and Kaplan’s plan “a hare-brained scheme that probably has a limited lifespan.”

“The idea that a journalist has to register in some way in order to have access to a public official gives me some concerns about its constitutionality,” Bralow said. Such registration may unconstitutionally compel journalists to speak or license themselves, he said.

Barbara Petersen, who is president of the First Amendment Foundation in Florida, said she does not expect other officials to subscribe to Kaplan’s reasoning.

“It seems to be really an excuse to say, ‘I can’t talk to you, reporters who ask me tough questions,” Petersen said.

Wallman said she is not worried that Kaplan’s sentiments would chill speech.

“In general, when politicians stop talking to the media, it hurts them more than it hurts reporters,” Wallman said. “As soon as they realize that they’ll be back.”

Broward commissioners passed the ethics code on Tuesday. Voters had approved a ballot provision asking for the county to implement an ethics code for city officials following a string of political scandals, Wallman said.