Eugene Weekly : News : 10.29.09

Secret Survey
City manager hires political poll on council
by Alan Pittman

Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz con-ducted a secret $25,000 political poll with questions about the performance of elected officials without the City Council knowing about it.

The poll asked whether respondents agreed with the statement that “Eugene’s elected officials are totally trustworthy.” The survey found 29 percent agreed and 34 percent did not, with the rest undecided.

Another survey question asked whether respondents agreed that “The Eugene City Council does an excellent job of determining priorities and overseeing public policy in the City.” Only 17 percent agreed, 47 percent disagreed and the rest were undecided.

Several councilors told the manager at a Sept. 23 “process session” that in their supposed role of overseeing public policy, they should have been told about Ruiz’s poll before it was conducted. “I just feel like we should have been consulted,” said Councilor George Brown.

But Ruiz said he didn’t want elected officials to oversee his political polling. “I have some concern about council weighing in about wordsmithing under the guise of policy, because all of a sudden that becomes also political, because now the questions become much more about what your particular position or interest is.”

But while Ruiz didn’t want demo-cratically elected officials’ positions or interests in the poll, his poll is clearly political. 

The poll appeared designed to push for support for passage of a new urban renewal measure, despite a 2-1 defeat of urban renewal at the polls two years ago. Citizens opposed the $40 million measure as a diversion of tax money from schools and other important government services to unfairly subsidize chain-store developers to compete with local businesses. But city staff have long depended on urban renewal to fund their own salaries.

In theory, using taxpayer money for political campaigns is illegal in Oregon. The survey questions tested possible arguments to use in a campaign for an urban renewal measure. But the law is rarely enforced, especially before a measure is actually put on the ballot.

Ruiz, who moved to Eugene from Fresno, chose Gary Manross, a Los Angeles operative on political and corporate campaigns, to conduct the survey. Manross advised in a council meeting Sept. 14 that the city use the survey results to help push Ruiz’s urban renewal plans. “This way you can say this is what the electorate wants,” Manross said. 

The survey included long question introductions that spun urban renewal as a “job creation” program in the down economy. But with downtown full of vacancies and pits after 40 years of city “urban renewal,” it’s hard to say that the city’s approach has created any jobs.

Even with the slanted poll questions pushing for urban renewal, only 48 percent of respondents said they would definitely or probably support a $20 million urban renewal measure. 

It’s hard to say if the poll respondents would reflect voters. Sixty percent of respondents were over 55 years old, about double the U.S. Census numbers for Eugene. The pollster said the poll was of likely voters.

Here are other interesting numbers from the poll:

• Less than a third (31 percent) support-ed expanding the city’s Urban Growth Boundary. Forty-three percent opposed expanding the UGB, and 25 percent were unsure.

• Eighty-one percent agreed with the statement: “Eugene is a great community; I’m happy to be a resident.”

• Only 3 percent of respondents said they were “especially concerned” about crime and public safety. 

• Three quarters of respondents de-scribed the economy as worse than a mild recession. But more than half (57 percent) felt that in a year the economy would be out of the recession. 

• Twice as many respondents described themselves as liberal (41 percent) as conservative (19 percent). The rest (32 percent) said they were moderate or declined to answer (8 percent).

• Eugene may have a Republican city manager doing its political poling with taxpayer money, but Democrats outnumbered Republicans almost three to one in the poll (65 vs. 23 percent).

The city manager’s political survey may be more interesting for the questions that it  didn’t ask on pressing issues. The survey did not ask about the city’s controversial decision to move its police station out of downtown to north Eugene, contradicting the city’s supposed efforts to increase employment and safety down-town.  

The 64-question survey also did not ask about livability, reducing global warming pollution, tax breaks for developers and corporations, police accountability, building more freeways, control of government by an unelected city manager and whether or not the unelected city executives that actually run the city are “totally trustworthy” and do an “excellent job.”