CARD consultant ready to convince Chico voters they want to pay another bond, parcel tax, or assessment

18 Nov

Last night Chico Area Recreation District board and staff heard from Ruth Bernstein of EMC, a consultant that does the groundwork for agencies who want to pass bonds, parcel taxes or assessments. 

CARD manager Ann Willmann had been asked by the board at a previous meeting to find a local consultant but said there are no such companies in Chico – board members had mentioned Chico State, but I don’t know if Willmann checked into using CSUC resources.  She instead chose EMC because they did the groundwork for the recently passed school bond.

Bernstein had been scheduled to  give her presentation after the Nature Center report, but explained she had to drive all the way back to San Francisco, so requested her presentation be moved up. I couldn’t help but notice Nature Center manager Caitlin was kinda peeved  about that. She was pretty bitchy in the hallway outside the meeting,  seemed impatient. I’d be mad too – like Caitlin’s time doesn’t mean anything, just because she wasn’t hired from San Francisco?  

And then I have to wonder – despite Bernstein’s assurances that her mother-in-law lives in Chico and she “is familiar with this community,” she sure burned rubber getting out of the room when she finished her spiel. Yeah, a four hour drive, much of it through pitch blackness.  My husband and I left at the same time Bernstein did, and we waited at the bike rack to make sure she was well out of the parking lot before we ventured out on our old tandem.  She might be “familiar” with our community but care? I don’t think so.

Bernstein described her agencies services – “we do polling,” which she describes as figuring out  “how to actually communicate with the public…” Her task is to “build community support for your vision,” she told the board.

She means, talk the public into paying for it.

On their website, EMC claims “Professional interviewers can ensure quality control by probing and following up incomplete or invalid responses”

invalid responses”? They mean, what the district doesn’t want to hear.  They are offering to lead respondents to say what the district wants to hear. 

They admit that  “Results can be impacted by the human interaction and quality of the interviewer”

Two ways Bernstein admitted EMC misleads respondents 

  • cost of projects proposed will not mentioned in the survey
  • CARD will not be mentioned in the survey

Bernstein explained, “Building community support is difficult.” First, she says, you must learn what the community wants, “then you know what to say about yourself.”

She means, find out resident’s deepest desires, no matter how far-fetched or Taj Majal, and that’s what you promise in your tax measure.  They don’t really have to keep their promises, we found that out with the school district.

Chico Unified promised a third high school back in 1998, when they floated Measure A out on the turd pond. Trouble was, the fish and game department had already told them the land they promised to use was not usable, that they would never be able to build out there by Old Raleys. The district went ahead and promised that specific spot, promised to build a third high school they really never intended to build, and got the voters to swallow it, hook, line and stinker.

Bernstein says her company will phone landlines and cell  phones, looking for 400 respondents. Really? In a district of over 90,000, she’s looking for 400 people to tell her what the rest of us want? 

And of course, respondents are chosen from the voter’s rolls,we know demographics,” says Bernstein.

Wow, so that’s how they skew the results – she mentioned several times that a “conservative” town might not pass a bond. So, her company picks and chooses respondents to create the notion this bond is supportable. I love the way she just admits that right up front.

We might use some slight weighting, but only a little bit…” Weighting essentially means, providing responses for the respondent, they don’t get to use their own words. This makes it easier for the surveyor to get the kind of responses they want instead of having to analyze a person’s actual  thoughts. 

It’s also called “leading”.  They act as though it’s just for convenience but it’s totally skews the survey in the direction they want it to go.

Bernstein bragged about her company’s success rate in terms of how many of her clients had passed bonds. That’s what they do – they don’t help agencies figure out what the taxpayers really want, they help these agencies convince the taxpayers what they want. 

Phone surveys have other flaws. “Caller ID is annoying,” says Bernstein. She admits people don’t like surveys, don’t want to participate, and don’t pick up when they see it’s a survey company. She said they program their phones with a local  area code (!) but don’t leave messages because “people don’t call  back.” So they repeat dial the same numbers over and over, from morning till night (“we quit by 9pm”), for about a week, until they get 400 responses they like.

The board asked when she would time the survey. Tom Lando was worried that information gather in Winter 2017 would be “stale” by election 2018, and Bernstein agreed, suggesting another survey directly before the ballot.

So, is Lando proposing a bond measure to be put on the 2018 ballot? Because it looks to me like the rest of the board wants to go the sneaky route with mailed assessment ballots. We’ll see.

Michael Worley was concerned that “the students” would have an opportunity to participate, and Bernstein said the survey could be timed for after they come back from winter break. But, she also opined that students only vote in presidential elections, so why bother to include them in the survey for a non-presidential election?  Again, it sounds like they are planning a bond measure on the 2018 ballot, but they never talked directly about that.

Lando also argued that he wanted to finish work on CARD’s Master Plan – currently being concocted  behind closed doors in ad hoc committee. Ann Willmann argued that they need survey  results to finish the master plan. She won. The board voted 4 – 1 to pay EMC $28,000 to run a survey in January or February. They will be working, again in ad hoc, to come up with the questions they want on the survey.

Willmann says she wants the public to “define ‘quality of life'”. Board chair Bob Malowney wants to know, “what is the public perception of this agency.” Two distinctly  different questions. Willmann is asking the public for their dreams, Malowney is asking them what they actually think of CARD.   We’ll see what happens.

Meanwhile, board members Jan Sneed and Tom  Lando,  who seemed to be getting a little testy with each other over the timing of the survey, announced they agree on one thing – CARD should have control over all of Bidwell Park. 

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4 Responses to “CARD consultant ready to convince Chico voters they want to pay another bond, parcel tax, or assessment”

  1. Jim November 18, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

    So with this $28K + $75K, what is the running total so far for consulting on this project?

    • Juanita Sumner November 19, 2016 at 9:56 am #

      As usual Jim, you ask a good question. I have been trying to tally up the consultanting sessions I’ve attended – off the top of my head, there was $25,000 in 2014 for a survey that came back negative, there were two consultants earlier this year who got $50 – 60,000, and then another consultant hired last month for $1,750 who repeated the same things the first people said; then this consultant who will run another survey will get $28,000. I think there have been others but will have to got through the catacomb of my notes. We can assume it’s well over $100,000.

      all of these consultants have said the same thing – CARD needs to run some sort of PR campaign to get the public’s support. These consultants have told them again and again – it’s a lot of hard work for staff. Ann Willmann isn’t up to it, so she keeps hiring consultants, looking for a team who will do all the work for her at a price the board will approve. They all say, they can run the campaign too, but that will cost a lot more – probably a few hundred thousand, maybe more.

      Willmann keeps getting the same report but refuses to act on the consultants’ advice. I believe she is not qualified for the job she’s taken on. She has hired at least three consulting firms and she still doesn’t have any kind of campaign.

      They just keep blowing money on this effort, and they don’t even listen to the consultants. The board lets Willmann lead them by the nose. She needs to go.

  2. bob November 19, 2016 at 1:49 pm #

    Why are taxpayers paying tens of thousands of dollars (and when it is all said and done possibly over $100,000) for propaganda (face it, that’s what these “surveys” are all about) to convince them to raise their taxes once again.

    For crying out loud we just had two tax increases on our homes in the last week!

    • Juanita Sumner November 19, 2016 at 4:24 pm #

      My simple theory – first, many people don’t see their property tax bill – whether they rent, or their mortgage holder pays the bill – so they really don’t know what’s on the bill. Second, people don’t know what’s going on at CARD.

      Thanks for keeping the discussion going, that’s what it takes, get it out there.

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