Government & Politics
 

After astroturfing campaign, speakers at council meetings must disclose any compensation

As part of its response to an astroturfing campaign for Entergy’s new power plant, the New Orleans City Council will soon require speakers at public meetings to disclose whether they received anything of value in return.

Earlier this month, The Lens revealed that some people were paid to attend meetings and speak on behalf of the power plant — $60 to show up in an orange T-shirt and $200 to deliver a pre-written speech.

The council’s new rules, though, would require people to disclose if they received compensation — defined as not just money, but also meals, a day off of work, even a ride.

Some civil rights advocates and grassroots activists worry the new rules could stifle genuine public input.

“There’s a big difference between someone being paid to be there and provided a scripted speech versus a grassroots advocate who needed a ride,” said Ethan Ellestad, executive director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans.

The council is “trying to prevent something that was clearly egregious,” he said. “It just needs to be done in a way that works for other advocates or small organizations who aren’t doing anything duplicitous.”

In a press conference Friday morning, City Council members also said they had begun laying the groundwork for a formal investigation into the scheme to pay people to advocate for the power plant.

The council has asked Entergy to preserve all evidence related to the astroturfing — campaigns in which people pose as residents or other stakeholders.

And Councilman Jared Brossett said he’s developing legislation to create a registry of city lobbyists.

‘Tell nobody you’re being paid’

In October, a reporter for The Lens saw about 50 people walk together into City Hall for a public hearing on the proposed power plant in eastern New Orleans.

He asked about 10 of them why they had come to support the plant. They all gave the same answer: “Talk to Gary.”

That was Garrett Wilkerson, one of the organizers of the astroturfing campaign. “Tell nobody you’re being paid,” he instructed one of the recruits in a Facebook message.

Dozens of people, including professional actors, appeared to have been hired, based on interviews with several of them and Facebook messages that detailed the recruiting effort.

“It was a perversion of our public process,” Council President Jason Williams said. “It is vitally important that this body aggressively and thoroughly investigates the use of paid actors in this public hearing process, because it is an act that can affect every single thing we do.”

On March 8, the council voted 6-1 to approve Entergy’s proposed $210 million natural gas plant, over the objections of environmentalists and neighborhood groups. Opponents called for a thorough study of alternatives such as transmission upgrades and cleaner power generation technology.

Power company says it didn’t know people were paid to show up

Entergy has acknowledged the astroturfing campaign but said it didn’t know that its Virginia-based public relations contractor, The Hawthorn Group, had hired a firm called Crowds on Demand to pay people to show up.

Hawthorn denied that it authorized the payments, saying there was a misunderstanding.

Entergy has since cut ties with The Hawthorn Group. Entergy has also announced plans to change its contracting policies to prohibit public relations contractors from employing paid supporters.

The company did acknowledge that its contracts with The Hawthorn Group called for specific numbers of supporters and speakers at each meeting: 75 supporters, including 10 speakers, at the October meeting and 30 supporters, including 10 speakers, at a February meeting.

Council to investigate, change speaker disclosures

On Friday, Councilwoman Helena Moreno said the council plans to hire someone to look into the incidents. Councilmembers said Entergy will pay for the investigation and promised the cost won’t be passed on to Entergy’s customers.

Williams said the council does not have a timeline for the investigation, but he wants it to be done quickly.

He said the council would need to see the results of the investigation before deciding whether to reconsider its approval of the power plant.

Entergy spokeswoman Emily Parenteau pledged in a written statement Friday to cooperate with the council’s investigation.

Councilmembers also said they will add a new disclosure to the cards that people must fill out before speaking at meetings.

Now, people who want to speak before the council must state their name and address. They’ll be asked to disclose whether they received any compensation to attend the meeting  — anything from cash payments to carpooling.

That could lump common grassroots organizing techniques in with the more unusual tactics employed by companies like Crowds on Demand.

“In the civil rights context, giving people rides has traditionally been a way to help them comment publicly,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. “In general, the ACLU opposes these kinds of disclosure requirements because of the potential chilling effect it can have on speech.”

Williams and Moreno agreed there’s a big difference between cash payments and carpooling. They also made it clear that no one will be prevented from speaking, even if they are paid.

But they say they want to know about any compensation so that each councilmember can decide whether it was typical organizing or astroturfing.

“Our goal is not to group ‘astroturfing’ with traditional grassroots organizing,” Williams said in an emailed statement. “I will make every effort and take every precautions to protect true grassroots organizing efforts and will make every effort to expose any use of paid actors or ‘astroturfing.’”

Williams said the new policy won’t take effect before the first meeting of the new ity council on May 24 because of city laws requiring public notice for council rule changes. They will be in place by the second meeting on June 7.

Brossett said he would model his lobbyist registry on rules for state lobbying. It’s unclear how such a registry would improve on current regulations. Local lobbyists are already required to register with the state. And Louisiana’s disclosure laws cover only direct interactions between lobbyists and public officials.

Williams said the goal of the investigation and the new public speaker disclosure is transparency for the public. “The more sunshine you add, the less mildew can grow.”

This story was updated after publication to include comments from people about the new speaker policy. (May 18, 2018)

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