On local government: meetings and opinion polls

by Bob Pinzler

During my eight years on the Redondo Beach City Council, I learned two things about evaluation. The first is to never attend a meeting in which the first agenda item is the date of the next meeting. That is the certainty that nothing substantive will happen that evening.

The second was to avoid meetings called by someone whose sole purpose was to say that “they had heard from people with different views.” Their sole purpose in organizing the meeting is to deflect criticism without having to change their minds about their position.

The head of a certain local special district is a master of the second kind of meetings. He has an extraordinary repertoire of non-listening ‘listening events’. Their sole obligation is to tell the public that they have been presented with a wide range of opinions, which they will diligently ignore.

Then there is the matter of opinion polls on public issues. Having spent much of my business career analyzing trends and parsing changes in consumer attitudes, I know how to read a poll. And even better, I know how to ensure that a survey produces the results that the customer might want to hear.

The general problem with public reporting of polls is that they never tell you the underlying reasons for the answers. That’s why you often hear that those studying the results feel the need to dive into the details: analyzing the data.

For example, if someone were asked, “Do you think creating open spaces is good for a city?” the answer would most likely be yes. But if someone were asked, “Would you be willing to pay for open spaces that you and your family are unlikely to use?” that answer would probably be a resounding no.

So if someone tells you that a majority of the public would vote yes on something generic like “health and wellness,” the first necessary response would be, “Have you told them the details?” For an organization looking for selling points to a skeptical audience, the likelihood that they would ask that additional question (and if they did, tell you the answer they probably would have gotten) is negligible.

It would be nice to say that the public isn’t naive enough to buy what these people are selling them, but unfortunately sometimes they do. It’s up to those of us with different opinions to at least let you know what the options are. An informed public is powerful. It is a core principle of the type of government we live under.

The seller wants to avoid that. It is our job as the voting public to not let them do that. ER

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