Over the past several weeks, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has been touting a recent poll as a reason to call for a special election so that voters can weigh-in on her parcel tax plan. Quan has said that the poll provides proof that the $80-a-year parcel tax has a good chance of passing. But this week, Quan turned down public records requests to release the poll, saying it was conducted by a private party that doesn’t want it made public. Consequently, Oakland councilmembers, who ultimately will decide whether to call a special election, should ignore the poll and its alleged results.
Groups that privately commission polls typically don’t want to make them public because there are obvious problems with the poll. For example, the poll questions may be worded in such a way as to produce the desired result — a so-called “push” poll. Or, the poll results may be suspect because the pollster failed to obtain responses from a wide enough group of people.
For example, last fall the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce released a poll that it had commissioned on the mayor’s race. It showed ex-state Senator Don Perata with a commanding lead. However, the poll appeared to be too heavily weighted toward white voters, while Asians, Latinos, and blacks appeared to be underrepresented. The poll also did not include respondents who had not voted in all recent elections.
Of course, the mayor’s race ended up attracting a huge turnout, including many voters who hadn’t voted in the last mayoral election. And Quan ended up defeating Perata by about 2,000 votes.
Although there is no way to know for sure whether the parcel tax poll has similar shortcomings, we have no choice but to assume that it does. That’s because there appears to be no good reason for the private group who commissioned it to keep it secret — unless it’s flawed.
As a result, Quan and the council should ignore it, and it should have no bearing on whether the council decides to call for a special election. Quan should also stop referring to it — at least until whoever commissioned the poll decides to release it.
As a side note, Quan and City Attorney John Russo have been involved in a behind-the-scenes dispute over whether the poll is a public document — even if the private group that commissioned it wants to keep it secret. Russo apparently contends that Quan is obligated under state law to release it, although the city attorney’s spokesman Alex Katz would not confirm that, citing attorney-client privilege.
Quan’s unpaid legal advisor, Dan Siegel, by contrast, does not believe the poll is a public document. In a letter sent to City Hall gadfly Sanjiv Handa, who requested a copy of the poll, Siegel argued that a private document does not necessarily become public just because it’s in the possession of a public official. He also cited case law to back up his argument.
Looking at court precedent, it appears that the question of whether the poll is a public document that should be disclosed is a close call that depends on a few factors. First, did Quan call for the parcel tax after getting a copy of the poll? In other words, did the poll play a role in her decision to call for the special election? Clearly, it appears that it did, because she has been urging councilmembers to call for the special election based on the poll’s alleged results.
And second, does she actually have a copy of the poll or did the group merely show it to her or just give her a few choice results, but not the actual questions and the demographics of the respondents?
Siegel said in an interview that he didn’t know whether Quan has a copy of the poll, and didn’t ask her because he views it as being irrelevant. He argues that just because a private group shares private information with a public official doesn’t make that information public. It would be different, he said, if the mayor’s office or the city had commissioned the poll. But they did not.
Russo, meanwhile, also objects to Quan turning to Siegel to deal with the public records requests of the poll. He argues that that should be the city attorney’s job under the city charter. For Quan’s part, she decided to turn to Siegel for advice, because she doesn’t trust Russo, Siegel said.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Quan changes her mind about the city attorney’s office once Russo becomes Alameda’s city manager.