Ron Fennel says he's offering his time and talents to his community, in his bid for the Ward 7 city council seat in southeast Smyrna. Part of his talents and about one-fifth of his working time is spent in advocacy. For that, read lobbying. But for some, simultaneous lobbying and governing is at least a grey area.
Fennel is CEO of lobbying firm Georgia Capitol Associates, LLC, which advertises services on the federal, state and local level. The clients that he represents under the Gold Dome in Atlanta include the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. His practice overall is concentrated in the hospitality industry. He's also head of the Cobb, Atlanta and Atlanta Airport Hotel Councils, three trade groups run out of the same office suite as Georgia Capitol. As boss of those groups, part of his job is advocacy.
On the state and local level, it's legal to be both a lobbyist and an elected official, though federal laws are different.
But "doing both at the same time creates a public perception problem," suggested William Perry, a registered state lobbyist himself and executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government transparency lobby.
Should Fennel win the Ward 7 race, lobbying rules still apply, such as spending disclosures or the ban on lobbyists visiting the state House floor. He is running against Garry Osborne, Ziad Salameh and Vic Yankouski.
"I started at the local McDonalds," said Fennel, the first step in what he called decades in the hospitality industry.
"I advocate for people who make a living making meals, making beds, driving cabs, people who work for a living, he said. "I have no compunction about helping to advocate for creating jobs."
Fennel said that advocacy takes about 20 percent of his working time and that he doesn't lobby on the local level.
One of the founders of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association says he sees no conflict of interest especially as the office in question is local. "If the person you're talking about is working at a state level, I don't see a conflict," said Rudy Underwood. "I don’t think they get any advantages."
In Smyrna, he would not be called upon to make a decision on the hotel/motel tax. That's set by Cobb County.
And at the state Capitol, where there are decisions to make about the hospitality industry, Fennel said being a city elected official doesn't give him any louder voice than any other city resident.
He knows the state Capitol well enough: he was a state representative from his native Brunswick in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He co-authored the 1992 ethics law that first made state-level lobbyists disclose their spending on state legislators.
"Everybody's a lobbyist at some point or another," he said. He gave the example of getting in the car after church and rounding up votes on where to go eat lunch.
"We're all about advocating to create jobs," Fennel concluded.