With the help of some University of North Florida students, Jacksonville residents now have an easier time finding out who’s lobbying city officials.
A lobbyist is anyone paid to influence an elected official. When a big company comes to town, they may send a lobbyist along too. And in Jacksonville it’s law for all lobbyists to register, says Carla Miller, the city’s Ethics Director.
“What you have to realize is that it has to be useful for the citizens. There’s no use gathering up all this data if citizens can’t find out any information and it’s not useable for them,” she says.
She says the old system wasn’t useful. Every time a lobbyist took on a new client or issue, they had to register it, in person at City Hall.
In the Legislative Services Department at City Hall Thursday, Miller pulled out a six-inch-thick binder from a library full of them. The spine read “Current Lobbyists A-L.”
She says if a resident wanted to research a particular lobbyist, most of it had to be done in person. Online, people could navigate Word Documents, but it wasn't easy to research a lobbyist's history.
Miller says creating a user-friendly database was estimated to cost $100,000. That’s when UNF computing students, including Jeff Gouge, stepped in. Their software lets people search on the front end and helps lobbyists add records on the back end.
“[The database] needed more automation, needed just a little bit more transparency, and needed it to be easier on the city staff, so they didn’t have to spend all their day doing paperwork,” Gouge said.