Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 22, 2008

Credibility requires full disclosure

Well knock me over with a feather.

I learned from Morgan Hill Times reporter Natalie Everett’s recent article that a highly suspicious survey for which I was interviewed was sponsored by a group of housing developers, land owners and real estate agents.

Here’s how I described the survey in my Feb. 12 column:

“During the survey, the interviewer made assertions that were very similar to claims in home builder Rocke Garcia’s Dec. 21 guest column in The Times: that more than 35 percent of new homes built in Morgan Hill are below market rate (BMR) units, compared to 20 percent or less in neighboring cities.

“The interviewer then asked if various arguments made me more or less likely to support a measure reducing the percentage of BMR units built in Morgan Hill, and if endorsement or opposition by various groups might sway my opinion. …

“I don’t know who sponsored the survey, but I can make a reasonable guess.”

I also noted that I was misinformed – twice – by the interviewer that the survey was sponsored by the city of Morgan Hill. I’m not surprised to learn that a group of housing developers, land owners and real estate agents was actually behind the survey. Are you?

At the time, I wasn’t sure if the survey was a push poll (an attempt not to measure public opinion but to sway public opinion), a message test (an attempt not to measure public opinion but to see what messages are most effective for selling a product or idea) or a legitimate survey (an attempt to measure public opinion). I’m still not sure, but now that I know who sponsored the survey, I’m more doubtful that it was a legitimate survey.

Now the survey’s sponsors, a PAC with the Orwellian name “Citizens for a Balanced Community,” are using it to try to convince city officials to dramatically alter the city’s affordable housing policies.

John Telfer of the PAC claims that 42 percent of Morgan Hill’s new housing units are built for income-based sales. Jim Rowe, the city’s planning manager, says that 33 percent of units built in Morgan Hill are subsidized, and a far lower portion is sold at below-market prices.

Just in case the city doesn’t bend to its wishes, the PAC is circulating a petition, hoping to get enough signatures to place the issue before voters with a ballot measure.

So far, I’ve only seen a sketchy summary of the survey’s results. Before city officials or voters give any credence to this questionable survey sponsored by a group with an agenda and hefty financial interests in a specific result, we need to know a lot more about it.

In fact, before we give it any credence, Citizens for a Balanced Community needs to do the following:

• Release the complete survey results, including the exact wording of every question and a complete breakdown of the responses to every question.

• Release the contract between the PAC and the company that conducted the survey, including the price paid for the survey, and any communications between the PAC and the survey company about the survey’s design and objectives.

• Detail how the 400 “randomly selected” residents were chosen and their demographic composition. When the interviewer called my home, he asked for me by name. It makes me wonder how random the interview-subject selection really was.

EdSource, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group studying public education, cautions, “Anyone who plans to act on poll results – policymakers, advocates, and journalists, for instance – needs to be able to tell the difference [between good and poor public opinion research]. They can evaluate the statistical validity of a poll … to help guide how much weight any given poll research should be given.”

The people behind the effort to change Morgan Hill’s affordable housing policies are using this survey’s results to sway officials and the public. That’s why we need to critically evaluate the survey, and that can only be done after all survey details are released.

We might find reasons to question how survey questions were worded, how survey respondents were selected, or why the results for some questions might not have been included in the initial recap. We might find that the survey is completely legitimate.

If the survey’s sponsors refuse to release these details, then Morgan Hill residents and officials cannot give the survey any credence in the upcoming debate about our community’s affordable housing policies.

If they do release these details, and if the survey turns out to be reliable, get that feather ready.


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