In the heart of Silicon Valley, lobbyists of powerful organizations meet frequently with city officials, but not everyone discloses what they discuss.
A San José Spotlight review of 2022 lobbying disclosure reports show how some lobbyists failed to divulge details of their meetings. While some provide a blanket statement about who they work for, others simply leave the field blank.
San Jose policymakers adopted lobbying rules in 2007 to increase transparency at City Hall and allow the public a window into how lobbyists are influencing city business and policies. The sunshine ordinance requires lobbyists to submit weekly reports and disclose details, including who their client is, who they meet with, how they communicate and, most importantly, the topic being discussed.
Lobbyists for the San Jose Downtown Association met with top city officials more than 30 times this past year, including former Mayor Sam Liccardo. Instead of detailing the reasons for their meetings, lobbyists simply insert a generic statement about the association as topics of conversations—leaving the public in the dark.
Boston Properties, a real estate behemoth based in Massachusetts with numerous properties in San Jose, also shielded why they met with city officials, providing scant details. All its reports have generic statements such as “permits” or “code changes” as reasons for meetings. Lobbyists of the company met with city officials nine times last year.
In a more egregious example, longtime political consultant Victor Ajlouny, who met with city officials 14 times in 2022, left a blank field for topics of conversation in almost all of his disclosure reports. Ajlouny represents RAI Service Company and downtown developer Urban Catalyst, which has a number of ongoing projects in San Jose. He disclosed the topic once in November as “enforcement.”
San José Spotlight previously reported how the city’s “sunshine” rules often lack teeth. This news organization revealed how the San Jose Downtown Association failed to disclose the topics of any of its lobbyist meetings. It continues to do so today. Another organization, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, began divulging what its lobbyists discussed behind closed doors as a result of the reporting.
San Jose City Clerk Toni Taber, whose office oversees the city’s lobbying regulations, forwarded the reports in question to the city attorney for review after San Jose Spotlight’s inquiry. San Jose rules allow the city attorney to investigate violation complaints, pursue options to bar violators or impose civil fines.
But City Attorney Nora Frimann said the lack of disclosure might not be in violation of city rules.
“Our ordinance provides that descriptions can be brief so the examples you reference wouldn’t appear to violate our ordinance,” Frimann told San José Spotlight. “It’s also very possible that a lobbyist received no payment in a given quarter, so on its face, it really isn’t possible to determine whether that disclosure is accurate.”
Alex Stettinski, the new CEO of the San Jose Downtown Association, said the meetings he attended didn’t have an agenda. Since taking over the association’s top job last November, Stettinski, acting as the organization’s lobbyist, has attended at least six meetings and met with nine city officials, including Liccardo, Mayor Matt Mahan, Planning Director Chris Burton and Downtown Manager Blage Zelalich. Former CEO Scott Knies also acted as the lobbyist for the association before he left the post.
“They are so generic,” Stettinski told San José Spotlight, referring to the meetings. “It’s my experience so far that we just check in on a monthly basis just to say hi and to exchange notes.”
Stettinski said he understands the importance of transparency and is committed to reporting all specific topics in the future.
“I don’t know what happened in the past,” he said. “But moving forward, if I have a particular agenda, then I would disclose it.”
Ajlouny also defended his practice of not disclosing the items under discussion. He said his client, Urban Catalyst, also has monthly meetings with city officials to check on ongoing projects. He said the city has never contacted him about issues with his disclosures.
“These are Zoom calls (where) I’m muted and I don’t say a word,” Ajlouny told San José Spotlight. “If I’m not talking, technically I’m not lobbying.”
Boston Properties lobbyists didn’t respond to inquiries about their disclosure practices.
Erik Schoennauer, one of the most prolific lobbyists in San Jose, said the city’s disclosure reports can be tedious and time-consuming, but it’s important for the public to know what’s being discussed behind closed doors. Schoennauer represents more than 40 organizations such as the owners of San Jose Flea Market and Costco. He logged more than 145 meetings with city officials last year and disclosed in detail all of the topics.
“I record it as much as possible and as much detail as possible within reason because I believe in the public disclosure process,” Schoennauer told San José Spotlight. “We like to be as upfront and thorough as possible.”