Secret Survey Questions Elicit Concern Over Push Polling Tactics In Tax Vote

(June 19)  Concern is growing that Upland city officials are using a survey of city residents to maneuver around the provisions of state law aimed at preventing taxpayer money from being used to promote a ballot measure.
To guide it in redressing its financial problems, the city of Upland last fall created a fiscal crisis management task force which cataloged a host of cost savings and revenue enhancement options. One of those options the city is now contemplating is the imposition of a half cent sales tax coupled with an increase in business fees.
To put the city sales tax regime in place, approval of the tax by the city’s voters must take place. City officials favoring the tax hope to place a ballot measure before the city’s voters in November during the general gubernatorial election.
In April, the city council voted to appropriate $75,000 from the city’s general fund reserves  for the dual purposes of engaging  a firm to survey city residents about their support for the potential sales tax and business license tax measures and to engage the services of a public relations firm to assist staff in providing the public with what city manager Stephen Dunn called “accurate and correct information on many of the task force recommendations that will be addressed over the next 12 months.”
The city intends to pay $27,000 for the survey and $48,000 for the public relations campaign. It has been disclosed that there would be no bidding on the contract to lobby the public with regard to passing the half percent sales tax and other city revenue enhancement or cost cutting moves and the contract would be conferred upon the 20/20 Network, a communications firm specializing in media and community relations, branding, strategic planning and crisis management headed by Steve Lambert and Tim Gallagher. Lambert is the former editor of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, the most widely circulated daily newspaper in Upland.
In early May, Lambert and Gallagher huddled with Dunn for a strategizing session. The precise details of what was discussed are not publicly known, though a central subject was enhancing the prospect that the sales tax initiative will pass.
The firm that will be conducting the resident polling with regard to the sales tax has not been identified. Councilman Glenn Bozar was the sole member of the city council to vote against the $75,000 expenditure in April  because, he said, “I don’t think it is necessary and it is an unwise use of public funds.”  At the June 9 council meeting, Bozar pressed Dunn to provide the council with the language that is to be contained in the survey questions. Dunn turned down Bozar’s request.
Even before Bozar’s request was made there was some level of concern in the community about what direction the city would be going in with the survey and its lobbying campaign. As the task force was undertaking its deliberations late last year, a number of vocal city residents began advocating against any tax increases, asserting that past decisions by the city council have conferred upon city employees salaries and benefits that are too generous and which are leaving the city in the position of having to pay exorbitant  pensions to employees upon retirement. In recent months the ranks of those voicing this concern have grown and they are calling for a renegotiation of the employment contracts with municipal employees to reduce ongoing and future operating costs and pension obligations before residents are called upon to cover those costs in the form of new taxes.
Bozar’s request of Dunn on June 9 appeared aimed at determining whether reports that the survey’s purpose was being suborned to further the public relations campaign relating to having the tax initiative passed were accurate. Ostensibly, the survey is being conducted to determine if city residents would be likely to pass the tax. Placing the measure on the November ballot would cost the city somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000.  So, before going to that expense, Dunn and the city council wanted to determine whether seeking that approval would be an exercise in futility.  What has been suggested, however, is that the 20/20 Network had a hand in formulating the form of the questions to be asked in the survey, blending into the questions suggestions that would “push”  those responding to the survey toward a preconceived answer, i.e., that they are inclined to support the tax measure.  Poll results to this effect would then be used to persuade the council to not only put the tax measure on the November ballot, but would be used in the public relations campaign to be put on by the 20/20 Network to convince voters to support the measure, some have suggested.
Dunn’s refusal to provide Bozar or his colleagues with the survey language heightened already lingering suspicions that the survey to be carried out would be a “push poll.”
California’s Political Reform Act prohibits public financing of campaigns. In addition, Gov. Code Section 8314 and Penal Code Section 426 prohibit the use of public resources, such as office equipment, staff time, consultants or government-paid contractors or personal for campaign or political purposes.
Government Code Section 54964 prohibits an officer, employee or consultant of a local agency from expending or authorizing the expenditure of any local agency funds to support or oppose a ballot measure or a candidate.
Reached by the Sentinel this week, Dunn said the survey would likely be conducted “beginning next week.”  He said the form of the questions had been set but was awaiting “review by the city attorney.”
Dunn said that upon his authority as city manager none of the members of the city council were being given prior access to the polling questions because he did not want any advance disclosure of the questions that would skew the survey results.  He said he was not going to comply with Bozar’s request to see the poll questions “because we don’t want the council to share them with anyone. We don’t want the question out in the public domain before the survey takes place.”
When the subject of the concern over the questions’ form and that they might contain language exhibiting a favorable disposition toward the proposed tax proposal was broached, Dunn abruptly ended the interview and did not clarify whether the 20/20 Network had any input with regard to the formulation of the survey questions. Nor did Dunn entertain questions about whether the survey was intended to provide a scientific analysis of voter attitude toward the proposed tax or, in the alternative, whether the survey had been designed as a “push poll.”
City attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow was unable to provide any clarification on the language to be used in the survey questions. While she said she was sensitive to the perception that the survey could be used to influence voters with regard to the contemplated tax proposal, she said it was within the purview of city management to withhold the questions to be asked and their precise wording from full public disclosure until the survey is completed.
Pressed about what the city would be driving toward in conducting the survey, Barlow said, “I think what the city council wants is an unbiased survey of its residents.” Barlow acknowledged, however, that members of the council had not been provided with the survey questions to make that determination for themselves.
Queried on whether the city could withstand a legal challenge by a resident or citizens seeking disclosure of the survey wording ahead of the survey being conducted, Barlow indicated the city would be able to do so.
Mayor Ray Musser told the Sentinel this week that it was his understanding the city manager and the firm doing the citizen polling are “not going to let us see them [i.e., the survey questions]. I’m not sure where I am on that.  I don’t want to at this point throw Steve Dunn under the bus. I think it would be wise that we at least know what they are. I guess he is afraid we will influence [the survey results] in some shape or form. I would like to know if it is normally the case that the city council in a city where a survey is being conducted doesn’t get to see the questions beforehand.”
Councilman Gino Filippi, who has given indirect indication that he supports the city sales tax concept, told the Sentinel “I am comfortable with the direction Stephen wants to go. I have not seen the questions but assume I would approve of them. This council has a tendency to micromanage and I don’t endorse that. I trust Stephen Dunn and I trust the level of professionalism of the firm he has selected to do the work. He is the hired executive and he hired a professional team to complete this. I am satisfied with that.”
Councilman Brendan Brandt told the Sentinel, “I think the our [the council’s] function is to direct policy and not micromanage every aspect of the city manager’s job and I have confidence  in Stephen Dunn that he will manage the polling in a fashion so that we get the data we need as a council to decide whether the sales tax issue should go on the ballot. At the end of the day the questions will come out and if they are deemed to be too biased, that will be part of the analysis of whether we have valid data. I don’t want to get into the drafting of the actual questions. I have taken no position as to whether we should put this issue out to a vote.”

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