Independence retains two lobbying firms

By Mike Genet

The city of Independence will continue to employ two of the state’s most prominent lobbying firms.

In separate votes Monday, the City Council approved contracts with John Bardgett & Associates and Strategic Capitol Consulting at $120,000 annually apiece. Both contracts are for one year, with two one-year renewals.

The council unanimously approved the Bardgett contract but split 4-3 on the contract for SCC to lobby for Independence Power & Light. Strategic Capitol was started several years ago by former Missouri Speaker of the House Steven Tilley. 

Council Member Brice Stewart, one of the no votes, said the city does not need two lobbying firms and also cited some of the controversy surrounding Tilley. Council Members Karen DeLuccie and Dan Hobart also voted no on the Strategic Capitol contract. Mayor Eileen Weir and council members John Perkins, Mike Huff and Mike Steinmeyer voted for it.

A reported ongoing FBI investigation has probed some recent IPL projects, including the community solar farm that involved another SCC client, Gardner Capital. Tilley told The Examiner last spring he had not been contacted by the FBI and was not aware of such an investigation, and an SCC employee said this week Tilley had not been contacted by the FBI.

Another SCC partner, Tom Robbins, has made the firm’s most recent presentations to the council.

According to city documents, Bardgett and RJ Scherr & Associates were the only firms to submit proposals for the general lobbying contract, and SCC was the only firm that responded for IPL lobbying services.

Before the contracts went out to bid this summer, the council voted the same way DeLuccie proposed a resolution that limited the city to one lobbying firm at $90,000 to $120,000, citing the city’s tighter finances due to the pandemic.

Going into 2016, the city had been spending $60,000 annually with lobbying Phil LeVota. After rebidding for services, the city hired veteran firm John Bardgett and Associates at $90,000. Later that year, the city added SCC to lobby exclusively for Power & Light. In 2018, the council raised their contracts to $120,000 apiece.

Before voting on DeLuccie’s resolution in July, some council members point out that would-be mandated costs resulting from some bills, which lobbyists help prevent, more than makes up for the cost of lobbying services. With hundreds of potential bills working through various stages in the General Assembly, it’s worth having two firms to track them, they said. One utilities-related bill could have cost the city more than $1 million had it passed, Robbins told the council in June. 

“Things move pretty fast down there,” Perkins said at the time. “It’s not so much what our lobbyists bring home, it’s what they save us from having to spend from whatever goofy legislation goes through.”

Weir said in July it would be premature to make such a decision on lobbying services, and the city would revisit the matter later, “when we have a clearer picture of our finances and how the Assembly takes shape.

“I think we certainly have a lot to think about,” she said at the time. “The performance of our lobbying team has been exemplary, and we’ve achieved some great savings, but still a lot on the plate in Missouri (that can affect us).”

Also Monday, the council unanimously voted to cut the interfund loan from city utility reserves to the general fund in half – from $25 million to $12.5 million. A council majority in April had approved the loan – essentially a line of credit – to possibly shore up some sudden costs and budget shortfalls amid the pandemic, but thus far the city has not tapped into that loan.