My poll or yours? 

When City Commissioner Vicki Vargo began writing a survey to send to 13,043 homes in her district, she wanted it to be different than any of the polls the city normally sends out. She didn't want to send out homogenous questions on unimportant topics. She wanted her poll to contain topical information that would prompt serious responses she could then use to form decisions on public policy.

So on March 16, the District 3 commissioner sent out her "opinionnaire" asking College Park, Rosemont and Colonial-town residents the degree to which they approved of 11 statements she arranged in seven categories.

Next to each category -- with headings such as "schools," "traffic" and "culture" -- Vargo included information she thought respondents should know before marking their polls. "I struggled for a long time with the format and how to word it," Vargo says. "I wanted something different from the way the mayor words her survey. I wanted to give information and then ask for a response. It had a two-fold purpose."

Not everyone was happy with her effort, however. The city's chief administrative officer, Richard Levey, wrote a strongly worded memo criticizing Vargo's poll. "It is very clear to me that the manner in which these questions are constructed are leading the respondent to an intentional answer," Levey wrote in a March 7 memo. "There is no balance with regard to the questions and they pander to specific interests. Many of the questions are constructed with a clear bias toward a particular result."

Levey also pointed out two apparent mistakes in Vargo's questionnaire. One said the city will sponsor six charter schools in addition to the Nap Ford Community School, which begins class in August. City officials say no one has discussed any additional charter schools; Orange County Public School officials say they haven't discussed any more charter schools with the city. (The school district does have a total of six charter schools opening in August, perhaps explaining some of the mix-up.)

Vargo's survey also said the city owned a $20 million tract of land in Parramore that could be donated for a new basketball arena. That property is actually owned by a private company.

Yet even though Vargo received Levey's memo before she sent her poll to the printers, she ignored it and printed her questionnaire as written. "Rather than taking the opportunity to express constructive criticism or to question part of the survey, he chose to send a memo to discourage me from sending out what had been drafted," says Vargo, who insists that her summaries are totally accurate. "At that point I said, 'Go to print.'"

Did she make the right move? Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor, doesn't think so. At Orlando Weekly's request, Jewett, who teaches polling and surveying techniques, critiqued Vargo's questionnaire and came away with the same conclusion Levey did: it's biased.

Jewett says the problem lies precisely in the area where Vargo wanted to make it unique -- in the information she provided before each question. "The little prefaces are clearly biased in one direction," Jewett says.

For example, Vargo wrote in the "culture" section, "Thriving cities often have great cultural communities. Some citizens think the City should do more to support culture." Vargo then followed with the statement: "The City should continue to help fund the Orlando Science Center, which operates in a city-owned building." Respondents were asked to choose between five answers, from "strongly agree" to "not sure."

Since most residents want a "thriving" city, they'll likely agree the city should fund the center, Jewett concludes.

Similarly, under the "property rights" section, Vargo wrote that some citizens consider building large homes on small lots a detriment to neighborhoods. The statement that respondents are asked to address says, essentially, that the city shouldn't prohibit the size of homes.

Based on Vargo's first sentence, it follows that many people will disagree that homeowners should be allowed to build the homes they wish, Jewett argues. "If it sounds like a bad idea, then most people will 'disagree' or 'strongly disagree,'" says Jewett. "People are thinking this is a bad idea because it's hurting our neighborhoods."

The bottom line is that Vargo probably won't get much mileage from her poll, he says. At council meetings, fellow commissioners are likely to reject her conclusions since they aren't based on fundamental principles of surveying. "They would be on solid ground to say, 'We're skeptical,'" says Jewett, adding that Vargo deserves praise for at least trying to measure the feelings of her constituents.

Though concerned about Jewett's comments, Vargo says she "respectfully disagrees" with him. Not providing information "defeats the whole purpose of what I was trying to do," she says. "This wasn't intended to be a scientific survey. I just wanted to give my constituents a good feel for what was going on. There's room [on the questionnaire] for comments. There was an intent on my part to give information and solicit a response."

Fair enough. But commissioners are still debating over the best way to gauge the opinion of residents who are not active in homeowner associations -- especially if council members intend to work without the benefit of city staff and with only their limited budgets.

Why would they do that?

Distrust, mainly. Several commissioners, who each have only one aide to help with their office, are wary of city employees either failing to give them information or individually polling council members on issues in order to help Mayor Glenda Hood set her agenda.

Commissioner Ernest Page says he didn't know until a recent council meeting that the city had failed to give notice to more than 60 Michigan Avenue businesses the city had annexed. It's that control of information -- both into and out of City Hall -- that Page finds maddening in city employees, who he says defer to the mayor rather than treating all seven city commissioners as equals.

"There is always an effort by staff to consider what the mayor wants," he says. "That's natural, but it shouldn't be final."

Not all commissioners are convinced that Levey was trying to control Vargo. "You're only controlled as much as you allow people to control you," says Commissioner Patty Sheehan. "If you have your facts straight, it's much easier to stop that."

Sheehan took exception to Vargo's poll statement relating to the size of homes on residential lots. Unlike Jewett, Sheehan believes the question is biased in favor of homeowners who want to build any size house they wish.

That bias would undo a month's worth of meetings the city recently held on the so-called tandem-housing issue, she says. Residents already were invited to be briefed on the matter by city employees, then polled on related issues. Sheehan is concerned that Vargo's survey may be given more weight than the one already conducted (with Sheehan's blessing and oversight).

"I'm going to have to compete with this now," Sheehan says. "It's not fair. It's not a matter of the city controlling us. It's a matter of having some respect for the process."

Actually, that process might not have as much integrity as Sheehan believes. While Jewett had no problem with the city's actual questions relating to tandem housing, he did point out that the preceding presentation by city employees may have skewed the results. "Even if they were very neutral and very objective, something they said in the presentation may slant people toward a particular answer," he says. "You almost never do it that way. You don't want to take the risk that you've contaminated opinions."

(Jewett also was asked to analyze the city's annual "neighborhood report card" from 1999 and 2000, which a consultant handled, and gave the city high marks for those surveys. He was especially pleased the city used telephone polling rather than mailed-in surveys in 2000, because the former provides a more representative sample.)

Of course, Jewett realizes that city leaders operate in a different climate than academics. But to get true public opinion, he says, principles of polling have to be followed. "I'm a little sympathetic to the commissioners," he says. "They are trying to make decisions for the benefit of the city. But there's a fine line. They [have to] tread it just right."


More by William Dean Hinton


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