Sponsored opinion survey casts MID officials, candidates in a poor light

gstapley@modbee.comJune 27, 2013 

— An opinion survey backed by secret sponsors and casting several Modesto Irrigation District officials and candidates in a poor light may have reached thousands of homes this week.

Many of the 32 questions on the mail survey suggest politically conservative sponsors who are irked by MID board decisions as well as progressive housing and transportation policies.

For example, some wording warns the reader that 100,000 poor people could move to Stanislaus County, threatening water supplies and property values and asking if readers would “like to have a high-density, high-rise, low-income housing unit in your neighborhood?”

Other questions suggest that government could force people to move from houses to apartments and give up gas-driven cars to “use only public transportation or walk.”

The survey was sent by the opinion research division of Modesto-based Pathways, mostly to homes in Modesto and Salida, said firm owner Don Langman. Citing company policy, he refused to say who bankrolled the poll and how many copies were sent along with postage-paid return envelopes.

Langman said he hopes to receive from 350 to 400 responses, providing a margin of error of 3½ percent to 4½ percent. That suggests that a few thousand were mailed.

Beyond the questions, survey takers are asked for impressions of 41 local people, mostly public figures including all MID board members, all candidates for November races, and some potential candidates and former candidates. Names of 21 people bear asterisks identifying them as “supporters of permanently selling Modesto water to San Francisco.”

Some object to that.

For example, candidate Jim Mortensen was chairman of an MID advisory committee that recently submitted ambitious recommendations to upgrade the district’s water system, including conserving water to sell at a profit in short-term contracts. He has criticized the 50-year San Francisco proposal that wilted under heavy public pressure last fall.

So has candidate Jake Wenger, who is listed on the survey as a “water sale opponent.” However, he also favors short-term contracts that “protect the ratepayers of the Modesto Irrigation District,” he said Thursday.

Former Modesto City Councilwoman Janice Keating doesn’t appreciate the survey calling her an “MID paid water sale promotion consultant.” She was hired by another contractor to help improve the MID board’s transparency and public image and had nothing to do with the doomed water sale proposal.

Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh and Councilman Dave Lopez favor selling water to San Francisco, the survey says, but in truth the proposal fell apart when the City Council threatened to sue MID. Council members feared that the deal could conflict with the district’s obligation to provide the city with water through a treatment plant.

All MID board members except Larry Byrd are characterized as water sale proponents, although all ultimately voted against the San Francisco deal. Byrd disavowed knowledge of the survey, as did all candidates in this fall’s election reached by The Bee, including Mortensen, Wenger, Ted Donham, Les Johnson and John Mensinger.

Mensinger said the poll must have been costly and supporters appear to be “trying to learn as much as they can, or push people as much as they can in the direction they want.”

So-called push polls can be designed to sway voters. For example, a question asks, “Do you think it is a good use of your tax/fee $ by the city of Modesto and MID to fix the uncompleted, yet poorly constructed, phase 2 plant if there is little or no water to process through it in the first place?”

Langman said his firm was paid to distribute the poll and did not write it or clean up its many errors. For example, an introduction says, “We are a turningpoint in our community.”

Marsh’s and Mortensen’s names were misspelled, as were those of state Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, MID advisory committee member Paul Van Konynenburg, former MID general manager Allen Short, Modesto City Schools board member Ruben Villalobos, Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance chief executive officer Bill Bassitt and Bee opinions editor Judy Sly-Herrero.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209)578-2390.

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