Info District dispatch: On lobbying

With tight budgets and newsrooms getting smaller, news coverage in communities suffers. That’s driving RJI Fellow Simon Galperin, founder and director of the Community Information Cooperative, to launch community information district campaigns during a 2018-19 RJI Fellowship. Info districts fund local news and information projects through an already existing news outlet or by launching separate civic dialogue projects, text messaging services or e-newsletters. The districts would be funded like other special service districts that provide fire protection, water, or sanitation services. Residents and businesses in a geographic area elect to each pay a small amount towards a public service. With everyone contributing, there could be enough funds to support effective local news providers.

During the project Galperin plans to publish info district dispatches like — brief, public updates like this one on aspects of the community information districts initiative.

TL;DR To pass an ordinance or petition for a referendum you need to lobby someone. The Community Information Cooperative’s 501(c)(3) incorporation means that no more than 20 percent of our budget can be spent on lobbying. At first, we saw this as a limitation, but we’ve realized it is a direction for our work.

To put up an info district, someone needs to lobby someone. The IRS defines two kinds of lobbying: direct and grassroots. 

Direct lobbying is attempting to influence a legislator or legislature to act on particular legislation in any particular way. In the case of a referendum petition, the general public counts as a legislative body. 

Grassroots lobbying is attempting to influence legislation by communicating a particular view on the legislation to the public and encouraging them to contact their legislators.

To put up an info district, someone needs to lobby someone. For the most part, that can’t be The Community Info Coop.

There are a couple of types of non-profit incorporation and each comes with different lobbying rules. The Community Info Coop is incorporating as a 501(c)(3) and that comes with restrictive rules. These rules are also vague. 501(c)(3) nonprofits can only dedicate an “insubstantial” amount of its efforts to lobbying. Because that’s so subjective, 501(c)(3) nonprofits can elect to be judged by how they spend their money instead of how they spend their time. 

That election — called a 501h election — means that only 20 percent of our budget can be spent on lobbying.

At first this felt like a restraint. With such a significant limitation, how could The Community Info Coop establish an info district?

But it isn’t a restraint — it’s guidance. We shouldn’t be convincing folks they need an info district. That’s not the point. Our role is to provide guidance to local partners and help them facilitate community dialogue and design to establish info districts in their communities. Locals should be the ones lobbying locals.


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