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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Push polling in Bizarro Charlestown

By Linda Felaco

If you’ve visited the website of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance in the past week or so,[1] you may have noticed that for the first time in a few years, they’re conducting a survey. It was also emblazoned along the top edge of their election mailing: “These Local Candidates Want to Hear from You – Please Take Our Survey!”

Funny, any time I’ve corresponded with the current Town Council or spoken at a meeting, I’ve never gotten the impression anyone wanted to hear from me. Quite the opposite, in fact. CCA Town Council President Tom Gentz has never even so much as acknowledged my e-mails. In fact, I’ve gotten more replies from our Republican senator, Frank Maher, than I've gotten from our entire Town Council.

And previous CCA surveys have not had any observable effect on their policies or actions. Witness the CCA wind power poll, which showed substantial support for it, and yet the CCA proceeded not only to ban it, but they also fired former town administrator Bill DiLibero for moving forward with plans for municipal turbines in Ninigret Park—plans that were endorsed by Gentz.

But hey, people can change. Turn over a new leaf. Learn from their mistakes. So it was with great anticipation that I logged on to the CCA website to take their “Survey 2012” to let them know what I think.

Only to find out that the thoughts had all been predigested for me.

Pretty much every question starts from the premise “Our opponents think we should boil and eat baby kittens; do you agree or disagree?” Classic push polling.

What is push polling, you ask? Well, according to a story CBS News did in 2009, push polling
“… is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data. You can tell a push poll because it … will not include any demographic questions. … And, of course, a push poll will contain negative information - sometimes truthful, sometimes not - about the opponent.”
For the results of any survey to be in any way valid, you need to know the demographics of the respondents and how they compare to your target population overall. For instance, an internet survey by definition can only be responded to by people who have access to an internet-connected computer or other device. The mailing offers no way to access the survey other than through the CCA website.

But even if every single Charlestown household has access to high-speed internet, you still need to verify that the respondents are representative of the town as a whole—or even live here. If, for example, the town is largely retirees but only millennials respond to the survey, the results are not going to be representative.

Or, what if most of the respondents are the owners of Charlestown’s many upscale vacation homes, people who largely support the CCA’s policies of protecting wealthy nonresidents? Do you think their survey is valid?

That question, by the way, is a good example of a push-poll type of question. You’d think that people with the highly touted educational and scientific credentials of the CCA candidates would know these things.

The survey starts off with the information that “Charlestown’s tax rate is $9.31 per $1,000 of assessed property value - Hopkinton is $19.34 and Richmond is $19.02. Charlestown’s tax rate is the third lowest in Rhode Island.”

Sounds great, right? Who wants to pay higher taxes? Except the tax rate alone tells you very little; you also need to know what the residents of each town get for their tax dollars. For instance, here in Charlestown and most rural towns, we don’t have trash collection or professional firefighters or emergency service personnel. So to compare Charlestown’s tax rate with that of urban areas that have trash collection and paid first responders, you need to include the cost of waste disposal and ambulance service and the fire tax as well as the property tax.

Part of the reason Charlestown’s tax rate is relatively low is also because property values are higher overall. If Charlestown and Hopkinton have the same number of houses, but a three-bedroom house in Hopkinton costs $150,000 and one in Charlestown costs $300,000, Charlestown can collect the same amount of revenue charging half the rate.

Then the CCA helpfully informs us that “Other candidates (not CCA) running for office in Charlestown have suggested raising taxes.” Now this is where the CCA policy about not naming names gets really annoying, because I would like to know who these candidates are so I can make sure not to vote for them, wouldn’t you? I know the candidates on the Democratic slate tried to lower taxes and were in fact shot down by the CCA. We also successfully opposed a CCA-backed effort to blow half a million tax dollars on an overpriced and superfluous easement on the abandoned YMCA camp on Watchaug Pond.

The next subject area is “Development.” The CCA tells us that “In recent decades, the population of Charlestown has grown 17 times faster than Rhode Island as a whole. Charlestown’s population has nearly tripled since 1970.”

Wow, 17 times faster! Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Until you realize that Rhode Island’s population has stayed roughly the same since 1970 and in fact declined between 2010 and 2011. Math has never been my strong suit, but it seems to me that 17 times 0 is 0. “Charlestown’s population has nearly tripled since 1970.” So it’s ~7800 now, meaning it was ~2600 in 1970. Oh my god the horror. I’m bumping into people everywhere I go, like on that planet in that old Star Trek episode that was so overcrowded that people could only stand, they couldn’t even sit.[2]

On this question, the CCA used a classic example of dishonest research by cherrypicking data to misrepresent reality. When Charlestown did its Comprehensive Plan update in 2006, we projected Charlestown’s population to grow from 7,859 people counted in the 2000 Census to 8,642 in 2010.

(From the Charlestown Comprehensive Plan Update, 2006 (Section 6, “Housing,” page 1)

In fact, the 2010 Census numbers show that not only did Charlestown not grow to 8,642 but our population actually declined by 32 people to 7,827. Charlestown’s population also showed a marked increase in age and suffered a decline in the number of children.

But that fact doesn’t fit the predetermined outcome of the CCA’s push-poll question.

In the next section, on “Charlestown’s Economy,” we learn that “Charlestown has a tax base and tourism economy based on our natural and scenic resources such as the beaches, National Wildlife Refuge, State parks and Wildlife Management Areas, and more. Our relatively low tax rate is ascribed to this vacation based economy.”
Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge:
Propping up our property values

If I’m not mistaken, the one doing the “ascribing” here is Cliff Vanover, husband of the survey’s author, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, seeing as how this was a major plank of his failed 2010 campaign for Town Council. I confess I’ve never figured out just how his theory is supposed to work. Sure, we get the parking revenues from the town beaches, and the state kicks back a tiny fraction of the parking revenues from the Breachway State Beach to us, but just how do the federal wildlife areas and state parks generate revenue for the town when they’re untaxable? Especially when you consider that with absolutely no hotels in town, once Janice Falcone’s 16 rooms at the General Stanton Inn are full, visitors from outside the area likely end up staying in Westerly.

If I understand the Vanover thesis of open space and property values correctly, wild and natural attractions boost property values and thereby boost tax revenues. Except if this theory were correct, why did home prices decrease more in Charlestown relative to neighboring towns? We didn’t lose any of our open space. The wildlife refuges, etc., are still here. The fact that we took a harder hit in the real estate market than our neighbors and prices have been slower to rebound would seem to contradict the theory that open space buttresses home values.

And then, last but certainly not least, is “Casino/Gaming Development.” It simply wouldn’t be a CCA production if they didn’t trot out the casino hobgoblin. Though as the final word in the heading implies, this is in fact a development/economic issue, and in a non-Bizarro universe would be treated as such and not as a category unto itself. But here’s what the CCA fills respondents’ heads with before asking about the dreaded casino:
“The Supreme Court ruling ‘Carcieri v .Salazar’ and The Rhode Island Indian Claims Stettlement [sic] Act work together to protect the right to vote on Casinos in Charlestown. New laws or amendments to laws could strip Charlestown residents of their right to vote on a casino in Charlestown.”
Once again, this is true as far as it goes. But to say the Carcieri v. Salazar decision “protect[s] the right to vote on Casinos in Charlestown” is kinda like saying a nuclear holocaust cures acne. The Carcieri decision strips basic sovereignty rights from hundreds of tribes around the country, in essence creating two classes of tribes, all so that the denizens of the CCA clubhouse can maintain their continence.

And yet, after punishing tribes all over the country just to prevent the Narragansetts from gaining full sovereignty over their land, the CCA frames the question very narrowly as a “voting rights” issue. Because of course who’s going to say “No, I don’t want the right to vote; it’s too much trouble.”

If you haven’t already, I encourage readers to log on to and take the survey. Make sure to comment in the windows provided. After all, the CCA says they want to hear from us. Let’s let them have it.

[1] As always, I advise taking some Pepto-Bismol first.

[2] ”The Mark of Gideon,” if any of you are Trekkers.