It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery: A phone survey asking Palo Alto residents about the upcoming City Council election has people speculating as to its purpose -- and funder.
Several residents have contacted the Palo Alto Weekly concerned about the poll, which took place over the weekend and included pointed language, including how important it is that a candidate is "supported" by Santa Clara County Supervisor (and former Palo Alto mayor) Joe Simitian. It also asks how important the person thinks it is to "preserve the character of the neighborhoods" and "increase transparency for city officials." The survey concludes by asking the person's race.
As part of the poll, residents were asked to rate their likeliness to vote for each one of the 12 candidates.
The survey's most controversial question, however, had to do with the perceived divide between current council members and their election challengers, residents said.
The surveyors asked: "Suppose I divide the candidates into two slates -- Slate A and Slate B. Slate A supported Measure D (Maybell) and wants to keep the city going as it has been going and maintaining the current level of city services.
"Slate B believes the current council is unethical and makes backroom deals with developers and wants pro-residentialists in office. Now as I reread the list of candidates to you, have you changed your mind about any of those running?"
Guesses have abounded as to who is paying for the poll, and why.
One resident thought the surveyor said he was calling from the City of Palo Alto, which didn't sit well with her. But Claudia Keith, the city's chief communications officer, denied the city is behind it.
"That's not something we would be doing," she said. "We wouldn't ask questions like that."
In a follow-up press release Wednesday, the city stated that it contacted the surveying firm, Interview Service of America, to express concern about the confusion. In a letter to the firm, City Attorney Molly Stump wrote: "Any suggestion that the city is conducting candidate polling or advocacy could confuse the public about the city's role in elections and erode confidence in government. ... Should your firm conduct any additional survey work in Palo Alto, we ask that attention be paid to ensuring that no statements are made that could lead survey recipients to conclude that political activity is sponsored by the City of Palo Alto."
The firm acknowledged to the city that it conducted the survey of 400 registered voters on Sept. 29 but said that the script did not mention the City of Palo Alto.
The city is prohibited by law from using city funds or resources of any type for political activity.
Given the wording about the current council being "unethical," some speculated that a residentialist group is behind it. But Cheryl Lilienstein of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning also denied mounting the survey, as did Sheri Furman of Palo Alto Neighborhoods. Both said their groups don't have the money to hire a polling firm.
Palo Alto Forward, a new group that bills itself as "residents who care about a vision of Palo Alto as a small city, and not a sleepy suburb," also said they weren't the sponsors.
One resident said she asked surveyors to identify the poll sponsor, to which one pollster reportedly said: "EMC."
But a call to 1068 EMC LLC of Palo Alto, a development firm located on East Meadow Circle, only brought another denial. When asked, executive John Mozart checked with his colleagues and said they weren't responsible for it either.
For the record, the Palo Alto Weekly is owned by Embarcadero Media Company -- "EMC" -- but the Weekly didn't sponsor the poll either.
There is, however, a research firm in Oakland, EMC Research, that provides strategic consulting services and is known for its electoral polling.