Friday, April 07, 2006

Language in 2001 Public Opinion Survey "Obviously Biased"

"Unconstitutional practices [often] get their first footing in their mildest and least repulsive form."
-- United States Supreme Court, 1886


When I wrote in a recent post that it was blurry whether the public opinion survey commissioned by the Los Osos Community Services District in 2001 was a survey to gauge public support on an upcoming ballot measure, or if it was campaign material, funded by Los Osos taxpayers, in an effort to influence voters on that measure, I didn't know how right I was. Now, thanks to the great State of California and a local public opinion research company, that blurred focus is becoming much clearer.

I recently phoned California's Fair Political Practices Commission to follow-up on my "opinion survey or campaign material" hunch, and they immediately referred me to a very interesting court case, Stanson v. Mott. If you're like me, you've never heard of Stanson v. Mott either. Apparently, it's the famous 1976 court case that clarified what is considered campaign material, paid for with public funds, and used by a governmental agency in California, like the 2001 Los Osos CSD.

Stanson v. Mott made it illegal, understandably, for a governmental agency in California to expend public funds for "promotional" rather than "informational" purposes when it comes to ballot measures that benefit that agency.

In a nutshell, Stanson v. Mott conclude that the director of the California's parks department, at the time, "lacked authority to expend public funds for the purpose of promoting the passage of the 1974 park bond issue."

It takes about five minutes of reading through Stanson v. Mott, and another legal decision on this issue (more on that later), to realize that the $13,000, 2001 LOCSD Wastewater Public Opinion Survey was an interesting, yet ultimately tragic, misuse of public funds. (Clarification: In an earlier post, I originally wrote that the survey cost $28,000. The study itself was $13,530. It was part of a $28,000 public relations package with the firm Singleton, Tacket and Associates, that included other tasks.)

I argue in my earlier post that the language in the 2001 survey, where some 300 - 400 property owners in Los Osos were directly contacted by a professional research company commissioned by the LOCSD, in an election that included only property owners, is written in such a way that the survey was essentially an effective campaign tool, masked as an opinion survey, and used by the previous CSD Board to influence an election. The language in the survey is egregiously leading, misleading, and/or completely false, and highly promotional.

For example, in the 2001 survey, it reads:

"Let me read you some statements we have heard from various people about the wastewater treatment measure on which you will be asked to vote."

One of those "statements" read to every property owner contacted in the survey -- 90-percent of which said they would either "definitely vote" (69-percent) or "probably vote" (21-percent) on the measure -- reads:

"This measure includes funds to build a large park for the citizens of Los Osos. The park would include ballfields, a picnic area, gardens, walking paths, an amphitheater, and even constructed wetlands."

Robyn Letters, a public opinion survey specialist with Opinion Studies, a San Luis Obispo based company, laughed after I read her that statement.

"We call words like 'even,' loaded words," she said, "and we are very careful to avoid them."

"It appears that someone writing that question had an agenda," Letters said. "It's obviously biased." She added that her firm is extremely careful when it comes to the wording in their surveys.

Additional "statements" from "various people" in the 2001 survey include:

"This measure is our last chance to approve a wastewater system for Los Osos."

and

"... unless this measure passes, property owners could be subject to fines of as much as ten thousand dollars per day."

and

"Unless we pass this measure, our drinking water is at risk..."

and

"We need to pass this measure now to ensure that we have safe, clean drinking water for the future."

and

"We will not be able to come up with a wastewater treatment plan that offers a better balance of effectiveness, safety, and affordability."

and, unfortunately for Los Osos taxpayers, much, much more.

Further complicating things for the 2001 Los Osos CSD is that the "funds to build a large park" that they told voters were "included in the measure," did not end up in that measure, as I originally reported in Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown, in 2004.

In other words, the same "bait-and-switchy," park-in-park-out scam that the early CSD Board successfully used on the California Coastal Commission to retain the Tri-W sewer plant location for their second project, they also used on the citizens of Los Osos, through a Los Osos taxpayer funded public opinion survey.

The scam went a little like this: According to documents, the 2001 CSD Board hired a public opinion research company, and then had that company phone hundreds Los Osos voters and tell them that the assessment, at "$19 a month," would fund, among other things, a "large park" loaded with community amenities, yet, just a couple months later, that same CSD supplied those same voters a ballot for that measure that did not include any funding for those amenities, even though those same amenities were pictured all over the cover of the Final Project Report, yet that report did not allocate one penny to pay for them. (Nice scam if you can work it, and the early CSD got so good at it, they did it twice! First on the people of Los Osos in 2001 in an effort to influence a crucial assessment vote, then on the California Coastal Commission from 2001-04 to unnecessarily lock in the controversial Tri-W location.)

Sources have told SewerWatch that if the 2001 assessment vote had failed, it is likely that the Tri-W project would have collapsed.

In Stanson v. Mott, the State concluded, in part:

"... the constitutional commitment to "free elections" guarantees an electoral process free of partisan intervention by the current holders of governmental authority..."

(Note: When I attended a CSD meeting in Summer, 2005, just months before the recall election, attached to every copy of that night's agenda were newspaper accounts on the rising cost of construction material. According to sources, those copies were made on CSD equipment, using CSD staff time. I'll go ahead and lump that in as "partisan intervention by the current holders of governmental authority," as well.)

In another Attorney General decision, this one recent, involving a community college in California that used public funds to conduct a public opinion survey to gauge support on an upcoming bond measure, the Attorney General concluded, "that while funds could properly be used to assess public support, they could not be used if the purpose or effect is to develop a campaign to promote approval of the bond measure."

("... unless this measure passes, property owners could be subject to fines of as much as ten thousand dollars per day.")

I called the company that conducted the 2001 survey, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, and asked to talk to their representative that was the liaison with the Los Osos CSD, David Metz.

Metz did not return my call, and that's unfortunate, because I wanted to give him an opportunity to respond to the following questions:

On the FMM&A web site, it says:

"FMM&A applies its expertise through voter surveys and other research techniques to first ascertain the feasibility of passing a funding increment ballot measure and then, if that measure is to be placed on the ballot, to help shape the communications for winning the necessary approval from voters."

SewerWatch: Considering that language from the FMM&A web site, and considering that the 2001 assessment measure in Los Osos was already "placed on the ballot" at the time of the 2001 survey ["There will be a special election in a few months..."], did FMM&A, according to your company's own words, "help shape the communications for winning the necessary approval from voters" with that publicly funded survey?

METZ'S RESPONSE:

(SW: I mean, c'mon, think about it... if it's already on the ballot, then what's the point of a voter survey to "ascertain the feasibility" of passing a ballot measure? The election is going to happen, regardless of the feasibility of the measure passing. At that point, it's a little too late in the game to ascertain that feasibility. At that point, it's pure campaigning.)

SW: Are you familiar with the court case Stanson v. Mott?

METZ'S RESPONSE:

SW: How is that 2001 survey not campaign material?

METZ'S RESPONSE:

With a bit of luck, the State Attorney General's Office will be more successful than SewerWatch in wringing out the answers to those important questions.

Although the 2001 Los Osos Wastewater Survey does include "more statements" from "various people" on why voters would be inclined to "vote no" on the measure ("People just can't afford anymore taxes, no matter what the government says about groundwater contamination." No matter what the government says about groundwater contamination?), in four out of five of those "statements," the majority of respondents did not "believe" the information.

Both the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's office, and the State Attorney General's office declined comment for this story.

For me, the beautiful part of this area of the law -- the Stanson v. Mott area -- is that it doesn't care how much public funds were misused to pay for the campaign material (in Stanson v. Mott, only $5,000 was at issue), nor does it care about the type of campaign material that was created through the misuse of public funds -- from newspaper ads, to flyers, to public opinion surveys... you name it. It doesn't matter. All of that is moot.

The beautiful part of this area of the law is that it says, in no uncertain terms, that a governmental agency can not use public funds to pay for that agency's campaign material, period. To do so would be sleazy. To do it under the guise of a public opinion survey, where the voters contacted are unaware that they are even being campaigned, well, that's just disgusting.

###

10 Comments:

  • All very interesting. How will this information help in our present situation in Los Osos?

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 2:35 PM, April 07, 2006  

  • "All very interesting. How will this information help in our present situation in Los Osos? "

    Better that it should disregarded, ridiculed, or attacked?? Historic patterns of behavior, illustrated.
    How about lets rationalise this one?

    According to New Times reporter Kathy Johnson in April 6, 2006 article "Dirty Deeds":

    "About a hundred or so dump truck loads of dirt and eucalyptus trees removed during the ground breaking for the Los Osos sewer project were deposited on private land adjacent to San Bernardo creek near Morro Bay. Officials required all of the material to be removed. the case is under review by the district attorney."
    Nice picture of the big pile of the golden shovels (developers ALWAYS love that shit), captioned, GOLDEN TOUCH Dirt from the Los Osos sewer ground breaking was dumped near a steelhead stream". Main source for the story seems to be Fish & Game warden Todd Tognazzini.
    Not worth our time though, probably was Lisa & Julie's fault anyway.
    Doesn't mean anything now. TRi W is about nitrates, not silt. ESHA fill is good for steelhead & the bay. Remember God loves Tri W & no vote can change that. It is inevitable.

    By Anonymous Dogpatch Refugee, at 4:07 PM, April 07, 2006  

  • I'll surprise you all ...

    I agree with Ron on this issue ... and sewertoons as well. I'll even agree with Dogpatch.

    The survey, does, indeed, seem to have a bias in the wording. We can't even know what the "definitely vote" or "probably vote" numbers would have been had the question been written differently. I suspect that, because of the newsworthyness of the issue, the bias would be small. There would be a far greater bias from the general CSD literature of the day ... the promises of a park and the like.

    So, yes, I agree with Ron ... but the numbers (about 90%) wouldn't have been too different ... maybe 80% had the question been asked "fairly".

    However, Sewertoons has a great question. How does this information help us now? My answer is that it doesn't. Even if interesting, Ron's blog entry will do little other than to inflame the rages of those who are supporters of the current CSD. They will think (yet again) "the previous board was evil and rotten to the core" and it is entirely possible that this anger will cause them to not think clearly about today's issues.

    As to Dogpatch ... it probably was Lisa and Julie's fault. They, and the others on the current board stopped all construction, so there was no one to move the dirt. I don't know if the location where this dirt was deposited was temporary (somehow I doubt it) or approved of by the LOCSD or whether it was the obligation of Monterey Mechanical to deal with the dirt in an appropriate way. I do know that if it is the CSD's obligation, the buck stops at the current CSD board.

    By Blogger Shark Inlet, at 11:45 AM, April 08, 2006  

  • Inlet said, "However, Sewertoons has a great question. How does this information help us now? My answer is that it doesn't. Even if interesting, Ron's blog entry will do little other than to inflame the rages of those who are supporters of the current CSD. They will think (yet again) "the previous board was evil and rotten to the core" and it is entirely possible that this anger will cause them to not think clearly about today's issues."

    I think knowing how this sort of political "spin," this push-polling works is extremely important. The past is prologue. There may be a dissolution election coming up, there should be a sewer project "election/selection" coming up, this will involve "campaigns," which will involve "spin," weasle-words will be flying, push-polling type info will be thick in the air, rumor, hype. It'll all come back with a vengeance. Seeing how these things work MAY allow people to be more cautious. This sort of hidden agenda, push-polling led us directly to the train wreck we're in now since each link led to the next link (think what would have happened if the original CSD had stopped when the Ponds of Avalon bit the dust, UN-LINKED the "parks" component, honestly gone back to the community, or did an honest poll that asked, "O.K. Now what?," think what a different outcome might have resulted -- the environmentally superior, possibly cheaper, more flexible, "out of town" option?

    As old Santana noted, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Understanding how the process was manipulated in the past is, as Martha Stewart would say, "A good thing."

    By Blogger Churadogs, at 6:24 AM, April 09, 2006  

  • Are you telling us, Ann, that how we got where we are today has any influence on what is the wisest option of what to do next?

    If anything, we should learn to never trust anyone who promises to do it better or cheaper. I hope that I am wrong, but I suspect that in a few years that if you and Ron are not writing about the how the current LOCSD board did tons of stupid things, there will be someone else who will write those articles and opinion pieces.

    Do you really think that Lisa is telling us 100% truth with zero spin? Do you really believe that the current CSD is right about everything, just because they said the previous group was wrong, the chief proof of this being that the previous group brought us TriW?

    By Blogger Shark Inlet, at 3:52 PM, April 09, 2006  

  • "As old Santana noted, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."

    So why is step/steg being investigated AGAIN when it was shown to have so many negatives in the past? Did those negatives go away? I think it is just being presented with a NEW SPIN, and the same old answer from the RWQCB will echo back.

    Should we actually be encouraged by Ripley's "Financing Secret?" In light of being more cautious then, we should reject this sleazy tease. And there we are, not being supportive of the present board!

    And the "out of town" option... Puh-leeze - do you really think that "out of town" is just a direction sign and not a group of concerned people with unity and money who really do NOT want our poop in their front yard??? Do I hear a rerun of the word "lawsuit?"

    We can say we can learn from the past, but judging from what is presently going down with this CSD, they don't seem to be able to make that intellectual leap.

    Shark is right, "..Ron's blog entry will do little other than to inflame the rages of those who are supporters of the current CSD." Churadogs, you are right too, your "Seeing how these things work MAY allow people to be more cautious." I am not believing anything this CSD is spouting.

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 9:48 PM, April 09, 2006  

  • If I remember correctly, the reason STEP-STEG was rejected by the previous board was because it was too expensive. Too expensive to require (most) everyone to buy a new septic tank and too expensive in terms of the energy required to keep the system pressurized.

    Maybe electricity is less expensive now. Maybe trenchless can save a ton of money (note other posts where it is pointed out that we need to save a TON on the project cost before we can overcome the inflation from delay). Maybe the CSD now cares about minimizing the CSD costs but doesn't care as much about our total community costs, and so now views the costs of replacing septic systems as "no big deal" even though for some homeowners it will run them over $10k. (Also, when you consider the scope of the project you've got to wonder whether supply and demand will increase all our costs even more than if the CSD were to provide the labor and send us a bill.)

    Heck, if we're re-considering STEP-STEG now, why did Lisa tell us back in November that STEP-STEG was just not the environmentally preferred option (I remember the phrase "not as sustainable" for some reason) when Rob and Dan and Lisa and Darrin penciled out options. They told us that the gravity system associated with TriW was better than STEP-STEG. I guess that either something has changed or that Lisa was unclear or that I misunderstood. I would really like to know now which of those three it was.

    Did anyone save the powerpoint Lisa put on the CSD website?

    By Blogger Shark Inlet, at 1:01 PM, April 10, 2006  

  • Shark, I wish I had that powerpoint! To add to your statements, I recall hearing that there was also the issue of what to do with the old tanks. Removing them would raise some sticky environmental issues, as I believe they are considered to be toxic. I guess if your lot was big enough you could fill in the old one and put in the new one??? (Don't know if that is ecologically cool or not... let's ask Lisa!)

    Also, we the homeowners, will foot the bill to update our electrical panels to accommodate the one dedicated line required for the new septic. I don't know how much that will run. In a sustained power outage, we will also need a generator to keep the septic pump going. I sure that is a rare occurrance, but what happens to the environment, not to mention your house, when 5,000 septics start backing up?

    I just don't want the public to see only the CSD's cost of what this will be to put in, and forget that it will cost EACH HOMEOWNER a bundle up front.

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 3:14 PM, April 10, 2006  

  • maybe will see what ripley says

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:05 PM, April 11, 2006  

  • We might see what Ripley says if they manage to pay him...

    By Blogger Sewertoons, at 9:41 PM, April 12, 2006  

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