On Halloween 2014, Stanton, California, city manager James Box wrote to the city’s residents. City officials were at the end of a year-long campaign to stampede residents toward acceptance of Measure GG, creating a one-cent city sales tax, the first of its kind in Orange County. They had warned residents that failure to approve the new tax would lead to something like the apocalypse.
Just days before the Nov. 4 election, Box spoke to them one last time.
“I’ve received a number of phone calls from Stanton residents about the city’s budget, employees, service challenges, and Measure GG which is on Stanton’s November 4, 2014 ballot,” he wrote.
In the face of obvious public concern, Box said, he was ready to meet residents immediately – or, rather, not immediately, but in three months, long after the election, in a public park clubhouse, on a Friday morning at 9 o’clock.
Box’s nonchalant response to the “number of phone calls” is evidence that the real purpose of the communication was what political consultants call “Get Out the Vote.” That Box invoked his determination to provide “helpful information on issues of interest and concern” and “accountability and transparency” reveal how upside-down City Hall had become: he used the language of open government to obscure his real interests and to shape public concern.
Look for a similar October surprise this year. Residents this year qualified a measure to repeal the 2014 sales tax, and that measure will appear on the city’s Nov. 8 ballot.
City officials paid Lew Edwards Group throughout the first campaign, and it’s likely they drafted the letter that came over Box’s signature. They’re still on contract with the city, running a campaign for which Stanton officials have now paid them well over $100,000.
California law allows public officials to provide nonpartisan information to the public in the course of government business. In several high-profile cases, state courts have ruled that public education campaigns like Stanton’s must not be intended to influence the outcome of a political campaign.
The landmark 1976 case Stanson v. Mott established the standard: “A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions. A principal danger feared by our country’s founders lay in the possibility that the holders of governmental authority would use official power improperly to perpetuate themselves.”
Despite that and other court decisions, Stanton officials have run a three-year campaign to persuade its citizens to raise their own taxes – and keep them raised. They’ve paid for that campaign with the public’s money.
The 2014 campaign featured a number of official-looking letters as well as a push-poll in disguise as a community survey. Like Box’s Halloween letter, a push-poll pretends to be one thing while being another. It’s a method of communicating (or pushing) a political message under the guise of a scientific effort to collect public feedback.
The science behind surveys is complex. That’s why it’s fairly easy to determine that the city’s survey wasn’t a survey at all.
The Stanton “Community Feedback Survey,” released to CPC following a Public Records Act request, was mailed to voters in June 2014. It featured photos of children posing alongside firefighters and police. Inside the brochure, city officials warned residents that budget shortfalls would likely lead to cuts in budgets for police and firefighters.
City officials sent a more disturbing version of the push-poll to their Spanish-language residents. That official-looking document features a severe-looking clip-art policeman at the top, and a request for compliance in responding to the survey.
The one-sided push-poll is designed not to solicit meaningful feedback, but rather to lead citizens to answers that support the council’s conclusion: the proposed sales tax is essential to maintaining public-safety. By limiting responses to nine pre-packaged “priorities,” five of which were public-safety related, unsuspecting respondents would easily come to the conclusion that public-safety spending is important and balancing the city budget (which is a constitutional requirement) is good. If framing the response they sought was not enough, Stanton went a step further by selectively placing those photos of children playing around police and firefighters — hardly appropriate for a mere a purely informational campaign.
Despite that framing, some respondents thought outside the box. Nearly one in five told the city other issues were important to them. These respondents were not primarily concerned about public safety spending, but about attracting business, homelessness, code enforcement of noise complaints, and graffiti removal. One respondent suggested encouraging marijuana clinics to relocate to the city; another said, “I wish I were a genius with ideas that could help. Maybe a lot of prayer.”
The result of the survey was not a meaningful assessment of resident’s priorities – not a dispassionate interest in public sentiment – but rather a pseudo-scientific “study” that local politicians then held up as a justification for more public spending along with tax increases.
A month after the June mailer, the city council placed Measure GG, a 1-percent sales tax, on the ballot claiming it would raise $3 million annually to avoid public-safety cuts. As part of its contract with the city, the consultant actually helped draft the measure’s ballot description. Two months after that, in September, city officials mailed residents again – this time to tell them the survey results had been tabulated and showed that huge majorities of residents agreed that public-safety spending critical and so was balancing the city budget.
The city has responded to this coming November’s repeal measure on the ballot with neighborhood meetings called “Talks with the Block” to attack the repeal effort. Once again, the 2014 feedback survey has played a prominent role in that campaign, with city officials insisting that residents asked and voted for the controversial sales tax. And once again, the Lew Edwards Group’s contract with the city ends just days before the election.
Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.