Why the need for secrecy?

June 20, 2013 

Whether it comes from editors or grouchy readers, reporters who cover government are urged to cut through the bull. Only through such an effort was dispelled the mystery of the Modesto community survey.

The May telephone poll of 400 Modesto voters -- originally described in reports as a customer satisfaction survey and “taking the pulse of the community” -- was really an exercise to test public opinion about a sales tax increase for public safety. The script released by the city showed that voters were quizzed about a tax measure three different times during the 20-minute survey.

It took a Bee records request and city staff time pushing 500 pages of documents to the copy machine to reveal an unremarkable truth this week. Certain city leaders wanted to explore a revenue proposal so they hired political consultants to test the waters. The juicy part was that Mayor Garrad Marsh and City Manager Greg Nyhoff determined what fiscal solutions to test with sample voters and concealed it from others on the City Council.

Getting expert help for a tax initiative has been done by scores of cities and counties, our local friends of the library, and Ceres officials who wanted a safer community. City funds can’t be spent to promote voter approval of a tax measure, but citizens can form a campaign committee and hire outside help from a firm like the Lew Edwards Group.

Some of us aren’t sure why the survey was cloaked in secrecy. According to the agenda, the Modesto council will decide Tuesday whether to move ahead with putting a half-cent safety tax or a 1 cent general tax on the Nov. 5 ballot. The 1 cent sales tax increase, requiring majority approval, would generate $26 million a year to fund police, fire and other city services.

A 1 cent increase with a 10-year sunset was recommended by the consultants who conducted that taxpayer-funded survey, but it’s not recommended by people who believe it would doom chances for a countywide tax for transportation. The half-cent tax would yield $13 million for public safety and would need two-thirds approval.

A decision Tuesday won’t be final, but would set up a July 9 hearing for considering details of a ballot measure.

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