The Long Beach Water Department won’t conduct polling anytime soon.
The Long Beach Water Board voted Thursday morning, May 16, against hiring a controversial pollster to study voters’ opinions on a potential ballot measure that would merge the city’s water and gas utilities. The proposed contract received pushback from a commissioner and some public outcry after that pollster, during a meeting last month, took some credit for the success of previous Long Beach ballot measures.
The board, however, did ask staff to look into creating a public survey on the Water Department’s performance. The survey could include a question about a potential utility consolidation.
Tuesday’s vote came after Commissioner Robert Shannon sounded an alarm in April that hiring polling company FM3 could lead the board to potentially violate California’s Political Reform Act. State law allows governmental bodies to use public funds to inform voters about campaigns, but it does not allow them to pay to influence voters’ opinions.
Shannon’s concerns stemmed from the firm’s partner, John Fairbank, making a presentation about his services during an April 18 board meeting. Fairbank touted work he’s done on other campaigns in Long Beach, including last year’s successful Measure M, which allowed the city to transfer revenue from the water and gas utilities to the general fund. He also noted that all of the campaigns he worked on ultimately received voter approval.
“I’ve had the pleasure of increasing all your taxes locally here,” Fairbank said. “We’ve helped bring legalized marijuana here for you, increasing your sales tax.”
Fairbank said the work his firm would do under a contract with the Water Department would be “to really see what moves voters, in more detail, about the positive aspects of this consolidation.”
Shannon said at the time that Fairbank’s presentation sounded like an attempt to sway voters, rather than just learn about them.
“If this falls into the area of advocacy, we’re placing ourselves at risk — at legal risk for crossing a line and acting illegally,” Shannon said at the time. “I think that’s a very dangerous, a very dangerous step to take.”
During Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Harry Saltzgaver — who made the motion to not hire FM3 — said he appreciated Shannon’s warnings. (Saltzgaver is executive editor of the Grunion Gazette.)
“I think he’s given us all a chance to work this whole issue through,” Saltzgaver said. “It also gave me time to consider what we’re trying to do with this whole process. I’ve come to the conclusion that what we really need is a customer survey, not a poll.”
Saltzgaver said the Water Department has never conducted a customer survey before; the survey, he said, would yield important information as the board continues trying to improve how the department runs.
Shannon, for his part, said he supported the idea. He also recommended city staff look into putting the survey together without the help of an outside firm.
“I think we have the in-house expertise,” he said, adding that he thought it would be wise to involve City Attorney Charles Parkin “in the inception, so we don’t go astray.”
A recommendation for just how to formulate that survey will come to the board at a later date for final approval.