Mysterious Telephone Poll Targets New Landmarks Law

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday July 25, 2006

Someone is polling Berkeley residents by phone, targeting issues revolving around competing landmark ordinances and the upcoming mayoral election. 

The ordinances in question are Mayor Tom Bates’ recently passed revision of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) and a counterproposal opponents have placed on the November ballot, said Sharon Hudson, one of those called. 

This reporter was also called Sunday evening but declined to participate. 

In both cases, the pollsters began by asking for the recipients by name. 

“About 70 percent of the questions were about the LPO and the rest were about development and politicians,” Hudson said. 

The November ballot initiative was launched after the mayor unveiled the first version of his revision of the LPO, presenting a proposal that won immediate endorsements from the development community and their advocates. 

While Bates relented on one of his most controversial provisions—the effective elimination of the structure of merit, the city’s most controversial landmark category—the version passed by the council includes another equally volatile provision creating the request for determination, or RFD. 

The RFD would allow a property owner to force a finding on whether the site in question merited a landmark designation and would confer a two-year immunity from landmarking if the Landmarks Preservation Commission or citizens failed to initiate the landmark process. 

“There were no questions about the RFD, which struck me as a little unusual,” said Hudson. “It seemed to me they were trying to characterize the LPO as negatively as possible.” 

Austene Hall agreed that the questions seemed designed to find arguments that might be effective in campaigning against the LPO initiative. 

“It seemed to me that it was a push poll,” said Hall, referring to a poll that is designed to influence call recipients rather than simply gather opinions. 

While Hall herself wasn’t called, her son was the recipient of repeated calls until pollsters were finally able to reach him. Calls also went to children of Lesley Emmington and Sally Sachs. 

All three parents are members of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and supporters of the initiative. 

Pollsters also asked about how favorably—or not—their subjects viewed Mayor Bates and Zelda Bronstein, the former Planning Commission chair who is opposing him in the November election. Questioners asked for favorable/unfavorable ratings of Councilmembers Darryl Moore and Linda Maio, as well as former Mayor Shirley Dean and Daily Planet Executive Editor Becky O’Malley. 

Dean has emerged as a significant critic of the mayor’s ordinance, and O’Malley has repeatedly criticized the measure in this paper’s editorial page. 

One of those who hasn’t been called is Mayor Tom Bates. 

“I heard there is a poll going on, but I don’t know anything about it,” Bates said. “All I know is what I read in the Planet.” 

Because of some of the questions being asked, the mayor said he assumed the effort was being funded from West Berkeley. 

Some of those questions included ratings of the new Berkeley Bowl approved for Heinz Avenue and Ninth Street near the intersection of San Pablo and Ashby Avenues. 

Another question targeted the structure of merit bestowed on a “West Berkeley restaurant” that pollsters said had stalled a profitable development—an apparent reference to the designation of the Celia’s Mexican Restaurant building at 2040 Fourth St., the site of a proposed five-story mixed use and condo project. 

That designation was later overturned by the City Council. 

Another question pitted architectural preservation and high property taxes against new economic development in West Berkeley coupled with lower taxes, said the call recipients. 

One name mentioned as a possible sponsor was Don Yost of Norheim and Yost, a West Berkeley real estate brokerage, investment and development firm. Told that this paper had heard he was sponsoring the poll, Yost promised to call back but hadn’t by the paper’s deadline. 

Pollsters identified themselves as employees of Communications Center Incorporated, a 19-year-old polling firm with calling centers in Washington, D.C., Spokane, Wash., and Lakeland Fl. Caller ID identified the calls as coming from the Spokane area code 

Judy Goodrich, operations director for the center, acknowledged they were conducting the poll, but said she couldn’t say who was behind it because she doesn’t know. 

“We are a third party collector which completes surveys other companies write. They don’t provide that information (sponsorship) because they don’t want to bias the outcome,” she said.