Was Modesto tax survey more public opinion poll?

kcarlson@modbee.comJune 19, 2013 

    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
    Recent stories written by Ken
    E-mail: kcarlson@modbee.com

— The release of 500 pages of records reveals more about an opinion survey on a possible public safety tax measure in Modesto and is even informing some council members about a political consulting firm hired to produce the survey.

The Lew Edwards Group, through a subcontractor, conducted a May telephone survey asking voters if they supported a sales tax increase for police and fire protection. But records requested by The Bee show it wasn't a typical poll.

This survey was part of "community engagement" services Lew Edwards performed for the city — and the firm was offering more services to get the measure approved. In its proposals to the city this year, Lew Edwards said it had "enacted" 46 sales tax measures for clients, including cities, counties and education districts and helped agencies in California get approval for $30 billion in revenue measures.

Lew Edwards, which claims a 94 percent success rate, assisted Ceres when it won approval of a safety tax in 2007. It proposed two stages of work for Modesto: first, the survey to see if a measure was viable and then an effort to build consensus for the tax increase by earning support from editorial boards, business leaders and local taxpayer groups.

"As we discussed, I think it is best to go to council only once for authorization," reads a Feb. 7 email from Lew Edwards to City Manager Greg Nyhoff and Mayor Garrad Marsh. "If you need to terminate after the survey, you can still do so and only incur the Step 1 cost."

The message also said the draft proposal did not include city-sponsored mailing costs, "which we typically implement for our other cities preparing for ballot measures."

After the May survey — which showed voter support for a half-cent public safety sales tax or a 1 cent general sales tax — Lew Edwards wrote a press release and a summary for the city's web page, and went so far as giving talking points to Nyhoff and Marsh and telling them how to run a June 4 council meeting, where the survey results were presented.

Catherine Lew, the firm's chief executive officer, advised Nyhoff and Marsh not to deviate from the talking points for the meeting and urged them to avoid "unnecessary and premature" debate on the sales tax.

Although taxpayers funded the survey and the city's $35,500 contract with Lew Edwards, the public was last in line to hear the results. In a May 24 email to Nyhoff, the firm agreed to brief the police and firefighter unions on the survey results, at Marsh's request, after private sessions with council members in pairs to show them the results.

After hearing about the work the firm was doing for the city, one council member quipped that filing a record request might give her more info about what was going on. "I was not aware of any of this," said Stephanie Burnside. She said she first heard about the survey during a budget workshop in May and knew little about the contract with Lew Edwards. "It just doesn't sit well," she said.

Other council members said they've been kept in the dark. Dave Geer said he was surprised the firm gave pointers to Nyhoff and Marsh about running the June 4 meeting. "I was not told what to say or not to say," Geer said. "It's one thing to take a poll, but another thing to give instructions like that to the city manager and the mayor."

The revelations were additional fuel for those who think a safety tax isn't needed. Cecil Russell, Modesto Chamber of Commerce president, said it was obvious to him the survey was biased.

Nyhoff was not in the office Wednesday and did not return messages from The Bee. Marsh said the firm's work for the city was finished after the June 4 meeting. Lew said Wednesday her firm had completed terms of the contract and wasn't doing more work because the council was undecided about a tax measure.

Marsh said he assumed Lew gave them talking points for the June 4 meeting because she felt he had been too strident about a tax increase. "Three years ago, I wrote an article in The Bee in which I said we needed more revenue. I think she was saying I need to keep my mouth shut and let them read the results without me biasing them."

The Bee asked University of the Pacific political science professor Bob Benedetti about this type of survey and the work done by consulting firms that assist with local tax measures or statewide initiatives. He said consultants hire survey experts to learn what the public thinks about the issue. They design questions to learn which strong arguments for and against the proposal resonate with voters. "It's not that the city is buying a slanted survey," he said. "It's about what are the best arguments for it, and what are the best arguments against it, so they can diffuse them."

The script and questions for the Modesto survey asked 400 voters for their opinion of a hypothetical sales tax to support public safety. Later, voters were read statements such as "Drug trafficking is a serious problem" and "We simply can't afford another tax increase" and then asked if the statements changed their mind about the tax.

Benedetti said it's not illegal to spend public funds on such a survey; he compared it to spending on public information officers.

Lew maintained her firm was hired to get public opinion on Modesto's budget priorities. She said it works on campaigns with clients to build consensus for tax measures, but in those cases works with local groups. "The advocacy services are provided to a grass-roots committee, but those can't be paid for by a city."

Lew's communications with Marsh and Nyhoff suggest work in addition to a public survey. A Nov. 21 email to Marsh states: "I sent you and the city manager the summary of our firm's wins for the year (21 campaign wins so far!) and suggested a project timetable for a potential November 2013 election." In a May 24 email, Lew suggested that Nyhoff use his authority to extend the contract "for the summer's efforts" without going to the council.

Burnside said she's not in favor of the firm doing more work for the city; Geer expressed the same opinion.

Marsh said he expects an item on Tuesday's meeting agenda will ask the council to put a 1 cent general sale tax on the November ballot for public safety and other services. The survey in May showed 60 percent voter support for a general tax, which would require majority approval.

Marsh defended Nyhoff's decision to commission the survey to get feedback from voters on city priorities. "I said long ago I wanted to know the viability of a revenue proposal before throwing something out there that isn't going to pass," he said.

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