In a bid to stay on top of and even influence state and federal legislation, the Mountain View City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night on plans to hire a political consulting firm.
The vote marked a change of pace for the city, which has historically abstained from paid lobbying activities in spite of growing reliance on consulting firms by cities and counties throughout the Bay Area. But with an annual flurry of housing bills and other important legislation in Sacramento and Washington D.C., council members agreed it would be hard to keep up without some help.
City officials did not provide an estimated cost for the consultant, but said it would be added to the upcoming 2021-22 budget.
The City Council sets a list of legislative priorities each year, with a goal of influencing regional, state and federal actions that affect the city. Top priorities include housing bills that change zoning and land use, and any funding opportunities for affordable housing and support for the homeless.
More recently, COVID-19 recovery and relief have floated to the top as major concerns, particularly any bills that would provide payments to local governments or rent relief for residents. City officials also flagged any legislation that involve police reform and accountability, mirroring local efforts to improve community-police relations.
Though the city focused narrowly on state legislation last year, the election of President Joe Biden means Mountain View will once again be keeping a close watch on federal action as well. Among other things, the new leadership could mean changes for Shenandoah Square -- federally owned land that could be redeveloped for affordable housing.
"With the new administration we have many important opportunities to get some things done," said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga.
Council members generally agreed it was time to hire a consultant, but some had misgivings about an outside lobbyist advocating on behalf of the city's interests. Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said consultants won't have a nuanced understanding of where Mountain View stands on issues, and she would rather see lobbying work confined to watching and analyzing upcoming bills.
Neighboring cities have been hiring lobbyists for years, and Santa Clara County has spent in excess of $300,000 annually on lobbying expenses. One of the county's consultants, the Margolin group, provides ongoing updates on federal action related to health care -- seen as a critical issue during the Trump administration, with its efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Mountain View's goals include protecting and even increasing local control, an issue that has been a constant tug-of-war between the state and local governments amid California's housing crisis. State lawmakers have pushed for aggressive new laws that can streamline housing projects and prevent cities from blocking certain developments, prompting significant opposition throughout the Bay Area.
Councilwoman Pat Showalter said she wasn't opposed to the goal of supporting local control, but worried that the term is too broad and has been co-opted by cities that have failed to build enough housing. Mountain View has done its part, Showalter said, and the city should support bills that reward housing growth and potentially even penalize cities that fail to build adequate housing.
"Over time local control has been used as a buzzword for people to hide behind, who don't want to do their part in housing," Showalter said.