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Dismissal of Survey Complaint Questioned

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday January 23, 2007

Councilmember Dona Spring called a Fair Campaign Practices Commission decision not to pursue a complaint against those responsible for a July opinion poll “a whitewash of a blatantly political” survey. 

Preservationist Roger Marquis first made the formal complaint to the commission in October, asking for an investigation into the survey, which, he said, involved expenditures that should have been reported for the November election. 

The 65-question survey polled 400 people between July 19 and 23. It included questions to elicit opinions on candidates for the November election and city issues, with particular emphasis on landmarks preservation and was conducted by San Francisco pollster David Binder. (It also asked for opinions on non-candidates such as Daily Planet editor Becky O’Malley.) 

The FCPC’s decision to dismiss the complaint was based on a report by Deputy City Attorney Kristy van Herick, who said she believed the survey was not used for political purposes and therefore expenditures for the poll should not be considered campaign expenditures.  


Spring’s concerns 

Spring draws a connection between the survey and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce PAC, which spent about $100,000 attempting (unsuccessfully) to defeat her and Councilmember Kriss Worthington, to defeat Measure J, the Landmarks ballot measure, and to support Mayor Tom Bates. 

One connection Spring makes is based on the fact that some people, including Abrams/Millikan, James Hart and Pre-Development Projects, contributed both to the Chamber PAC and to the survey.  

De Tienne, who said he has not contributed funds to the survey to date—the $18,000 survey has not yet been fully paid for—is a consultant who works both for San Rafael-based Seagate Properties, which contributed $5,250 to the Chamber PAC effort and for the San Rafael-based Wareham Development Group, which kicked in $10,000 to the effort. 

“Mr. de Tienne told staff that he did share certain of the findings from the poll with his own private business clients,” the report says. 

Reached by phone Monday, de Tienne confirmed he had shared the information with Seagate and Wareham, but denied doing it with the intention of influencing the election. “I didn’t even know where the Chamber (office) is located,” he said. 

Van Herick explains in her report that she is aware of the dual contributions, but notes: “Staff has no information linking any of these individuals or organizations with any campaign committees as treasurers, candidates or committee officers or agents.”  

Spring makes the link on more than common donations. She thinks the survey questions were used as a basis for attacks against her during the elections. 

The question on the Berkeley Bowl is a case in point. It asked: “Do you support or oppose the decision by the City Council to approve a second Berkeley Bowl store?” Eighty-seven percent of the respondents said they approved and 6 percent disapproved.  

Van Herick said questions such as this indicated that the survey was not political, but included issues outside the landmarks ballot measure and candidates. “For example, Mr. de Tienne referenced that 87 percent of those surveyed supported the Berkeley Bowl project despite vocal opposition to the project,” she wrote. 

But Spring argued that the question is political and was used against her and Councilmember Kriss Worthington. Spring saidthat both the Chamber PAC mailer and Wilson’s campaign piece against Spring, using the survey results to shape their contentions, claimed that Spring and Worthington abstained on the final West Berkeley Bowl vote. Actually, both candidates voted in favor of the West Berkeley Bowl on the final vote, having abstained on the next-to-last vote in order to prepare a separate resolution supporting a union at the new store. 

Reached on Thursday, Steven Donaldson of Brand Guidance Design Intelligence, BGDi, who wrote and designed the PAC mailers, said the ideas expressed did not come from the survey, which he did not seen, but from discussions with others and from other sources such as the Daily Planet. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington agreed with Spring, saying that “it is straining credibility to think there was no coordination” between the Chamber PAC and the survey.  

He argued that the city attorney’s investigation was minimal. “Due diligence was not applied,” he said.  

Van Herick did not return Daily Planet phone calls to her office, but it appears from her staff report that she did not talk to David Binder or to the Chamber PAC representatives. She did try to reach the chamber president, who denies he is part of the PAC. Binder did not return a call for comment from the Daily Planet. 


Poll purpose 

Why was the poll conducted? According to Van Herick’s report, quoting de Tienne, “the group decided to commission the poll for the purpose of determining whether the vocal minority within Berkeley actually spoke for the views of the Berkeley community as a whole.” De Tienne confirmed by phone that, having worked in Berkeley for 15-to-20 years, and having heard vastly different viewpoints on various issues, he wanted to find out what people really thought. 

However, the poll recipients did not accurately reflect the community. 

Those interviewed were not equally distributed around the city. Forty-five percent of those polled live in the more affluent Districts 5 (18 percent), 6 (16 percent) and 8 (11 percent); only 6 percent were polled in the heavily-student District 7. Other districts comprised 11-15 percent of the poll. 

Eightly-five percent of those surveyed graduated from college, whereas in the Berkeley population, 64 percent are college graduates.  

Whereas white persons represent 59 percent of the Berkeley population, the survey polled 77 percent of whites. Asians represent 16 percent, but 7 percent were polled; African Americans represent just under 14 percent, but 5 percent were polled and Hispanics represent almost 8 percent, but 2 percent were polled. 

About 68 percent of those polled own their own homes, but almost 43 percent of Berkeley’s population are homeowners. 

De Tienne was surprised at the assessment that the survey was not truly representative of Berkeley. “That’s why we hired David Binder,” he said. “I hired him to be as representative as possible.”