Independence looking at lobbying contracts

Mike Genet

For a couple years, the city of Independence has spent $240,000 annually on lobbying services from two firms.

Some City Council members support spending half that total as the city navigates its finances through the pandemic, but Mayor Eileen Weir and others prefer to wait a little before making final decisions, as the city’s lobbying contract goes back out for bid this year.

Going into 2016, the city had been spending $60,000 annually with Phil LeVota. After rebidding for services, the city hired veteran firm John Bardgett and Associates at $90,000. Later that year, the city added Strategic Capitol Consulting, the firm started by former House speaker Steven Tilley, to lobby exclusively for Independence Power & Light. In 2018, the council raised their contracts to $120,000 apiece.

The Bardgett contract ends after August and the SCC contract after October. Barring a special session called by the governor, the next General Assembly session begins in January. Council Member Karen DeLuccie proposed a resolution earlier this month to limit lobbying services to one firm, paid between $90,000 and $120,000, but the council voted it down 4-3.

“We cannot afford that,” DeLuccie said of the current cost. “There is no reason one firm can’t represent the lobbying interests of our town when we had to borrow $25 million (from the utilities).”

Before he departed from the council, former member Scott Roberson had called two firms at that price “overkill” and suggested the city rely on good relationships with local members of the General Assembly.

New council members Brice Stewart and Dan Hobart voted with DeLuccie. Weir and council members John Perkins, Mike Huff and Mike Steinmeyer voted against the resolution.

Some council members point out that the mandated costs that result 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, lobbyists told the council last month.

“Things move pretty fast down there,” Perkins said before the vote. “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.”

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

“Our goal is to have a lobbying firm in place by Dec. 1,” she said. “I think we certainly have a lot to think about. 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).”

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

Another SCC partner, Tom Robbins, delivered the firm’s legislative recap to the city last month.