Port Manatee commissioners want lobbying given more attention

PORT MANATEE -- During his first six months as a member of the Manatee County Port Authority, Charles Smith hasn't heard a peep out of the two lobbying firms the port pays to promote its interests in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

Apparently, he's not entirely alone.

During an annual update of the port's legislative priorities Thursday, Smith's declaration revealed what he and some of his fellow commissioners believe to be a disconnect between the board and the lobbying firms that represent the port's interests. The newest member of the authority, Smith used the otherwise-boilerplate agenda item to shine light on the port's rarely discussed political activity.

This year, two lobbying firms will be paid a total of $72,000 to advocate for the port to members of Congress and the Legislature.

Top issues at the state level include supporting transportation projects that benefit Port Manatee and advocating for full funding for the Florida Ports Council.

In the nation's capital, the port is voicing its opposition to an agricultural inspections fee increase proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dave Sanford, the port's deputy executive director, said the port's D.C. lobbying firm is advocating for operation and maintenance funding for shipping channels, and for full use of a harbor maintenance tax that pays for federal channel maintenance.

The update, which lasted fewer than five minutes, was the first Smith had heard of the lobbyists' activities.

"I don't know what they're lobbying on. I've never talked to them," he said.

The lobbying arm of Bradenton law firm Lewis Longman & Walker handles state level work for the port, while Twenty-First Century Group represents the port in Washington. Twenty-First Century is also employed by Manatee County.

Smith, who has been outspoken in asking for docu

mentation and explanations of port activities during his half year with the authority, tasked port staff members with getting him copies of contracts with the lobbying firms, updates on their work and information about charges for their services. He also said he wants to take a look at the firms' client lists to make sure there are no conflicts of interest involving other ports.

He then suggested that authority members receive regular updates about lobbying activities. The idea got traction with several authority members, including Chairwoman Carol Whitmore. Closer communications would not only keep the authority closer to legislative efforts, she said, but will allow them the opportunity to evaluate the firms' effectiveness. The port does change lobbying firms from time to time: It hired Lewis Longman & Walker three years ago.

"We want to make sure we're getting the best bang for our buck," Whitmore said. "But we expect to know what our lobbyist is doing. We want information. It's nice for staff to have it, but we're the policy setters."

Taking a cue from Smith and Whitmore, the authority directed port staff to place lobbying discussions on a future work session agenda.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.