Editorial: Will Downtown Push-Poll Voters?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 21, 2006

A little bird dropped off at the Daily Planet office a document entitled “Survey on Economic Development in Berkeley—Preliminary Materials,” dated April 9. It is described as “proposed categories and question [sic] for an economic development survey,” to be converted by a professional survey company into the appropriate format to reach 400 potential Berkeley voters. It purports to be an attempt “to discover how Berkeley residents feel about a variety of public policy challenges confronting the city in spring, 2006.” 

The birdie suggested that the survey will probably be paid for by some combination of the Downtown Berkeley Association (sometimes called the Downtown Business Association), the Seagate property development corporation that’s been swallowing up big chunks of Berkeley, the Chamber of Commerce, and maybe the city’s Economic Development Department. A laudable idea, perhaps, asking what people think and developing policy as the people wish. Or maybe not. 

There are at least two kinds of opinion polls. Some polls are open-minded, genuine attempts to get information. Others, however, are not. These are the notorious “push” polls, the ones that attempt to suggest to the respondents what they ought to be thinking. These have been recently employed by, among others, the far right supporters of the Bush administration, and they’re an ugly business.  

Based on the document we saw, it looks like downtown interests are planning to inflict a push-poll on the citizens of Berkeley, a very poor idea indeed. Why do we think this? 

Well, let’s start at the top.  


I—Questions Regarding Street Behavior 

1. Lying Ordinance 

a. Do you favor a stricter enforcement of this ordinance? 

b. What enforcement tool should police have?  

c. Are you familiar with James Q. Wilson’s “Broken Windows,” Atlantic Monthly (March,1982)…? 


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the codes embedded in this question, a brief primer. Berkeley’s “lying ordinance”—prohibiting various forms of prone posture on public sidewalks—was designed to clear the streets of unsightly beggars without actually violating their constitutional rights. The “Broken Windows” theory is one of the most persistent of absolutely unprovable urban legends, that if you make cities look nice by cosmetic alterations such as fixing broken windows, cleaning off graffiti and hauling away unsightly beggars, crime will disappear and property values will rise.  

As it happens, Thursday’s Los Angeles Times contained an excellent article by University of Chicago Law Professor Bernard Harcourt, refuting, once again, for the umpteenth time, the broken window legend. Here’s how he describes it:  

“The theory was first articulated by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the Atlantic magazine in 1982. They argued that minor forms of disorder—such as graffiti, litter, panhandling and prostitution—will, if left unattended, result in an increase in serious criminal activity. Clean up minor disorder, they said, and a reduction in major crime will follow.” 

He then goes on to cite at least six major social science studies since 1982, including a recent one of his own, which completely refute Wilson’s theory. His conclusion: 

“Everybody agrees that police matter. The question is how to allocate scarce police dollars. Should cops be arresting, processing and clogging the courts with minor-disorder offenders or focusing on violence, as well as gang and gun crimes, with the help of increased computerized crime tracking? The evidence, in my view, is clear: Focusing on minor misdemeanors is a waste.” 

Property owners in Berkeley’s modest, somewhat seedy old downtown shopping district have traditionally blamed panhandlers for their business problems, and they have a First Amendment right to do so—even if they’re mistaken. But when they use a push-poll and discredited pseudo-science to promote public demand for more policing in their own arena, something’s wrong. Drug violence is severely impacting Berkeley neighborhoods, and that’s where police dollars are needed. 

And here are more proposed questions, designed to lead the respondent to a predetermined conclusion: 

II, 6. If you knew that at least a million square feel of land in West Berkeley that is zoned for light industry, has been sitting empty for long periods of time, and has been contributing nothing to the tax base, would you favor rezoning of that area so that it could be used commercially in a different way which would make a significant contribution to the city’s tax base? 


II,13. If you were told that the city of Berkeley has a substantially higher percentage of buildings landmarked than any other surrounding city, and that such landmarking was impairing economic development in Berkeley, would you support a change in the landmarking process?  

If you were told that pigs could fly, would you support the City of Berkeley’s requiring them to file flight plans?  

This kind of loopy question continues for six closely spaced pages which contain many more outrageous and erroneous assumptions. Berkeley citizens deserve to know who’s paying for this folderol, whether any public funding is involved, and how sponsors plan to use it. Influencing the November city election is one possibility.  

Gluttons for outrage can see the full text of the proposed survey on our website: www.berkeleydailyplanet.com. 


—Becky O’Malley›