Conducting surveys of registered voters in advance of putting tax increases or bond measures on election ballots has become a standard tool of city governments, school districts and other groups to determine a measure's likelihood of success.
A research company is typically hired to test voter attitudes on both the amounts to be raised and reactions to arguments for and against funding measures. The results provide valuable information for elected officials and greatly influence the amount of proposed tax increase or bond measure revenue that is ultimately placed on the ballot. Such polling is a legitimate and important tool in guiding elected officials so as not to overreach and risk the rejection of a measure.
But increasingly these same polls are also being used to determine the words, statements or phrases that best resonate with the voters surveyed and that will increase the chances of success. And, as last week's brief Palo Alto City Council discussion on the ballot language for a proposed increase in the hotel tax showed, city officials are walking a dangerous line in developing ballot language that is less than transparent at best and dishonest at worst.
To his credit, Councilman Greg Tanaka challenged city staff on the proposed ballot language for the measure, which was before the council for final approval.
Tanaka objected to the description stating the revenue from the tax increase would be used "for vital city services such as ensuring modern, stable 911 emergency communications, earthquake-safe fire stations and emergency command center; improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety; ensuring safe routes to schools; maintaining city streets and sidewalks; and other city services."
He correctly pointed out that the actual rationale for raising additional money through this tax was not to fund city services but to fund several major infrastructure projects, including the new public safety building and parking garages, and he questioned why the ballot measure didn't simply spell this out more clearly.
The answer he got from City Manager Jim Keene was honest but concerning.
Keene admitted that the language was crafted because it polled the best among likely voters and was designed to favorably influence the outcome. He also defended its accuracy by pointing out the fact that the city's dispatch center, where 911 calls are routed, is located at City Hall, which has long been viewed as seismically unsafe for mission-critical services that must be able to operate after a major earthquake.
He incorrectly stated, however, that "we would lose our communication and our 911 system" in the event of an earthquake, since the city has a highly touted mobile command center with all the equipment necessary to keep these systems in operation.
Tanaka questioned whether the ballot language amounted to fear-mongering and a "bait and switch" since it failed to even reference funding of the new public safety building or use the frequently discussed "infrastructure" needs of the community. Why not just be honest about how the money will be spent?, he asked.
We agree with Tanaka and are disappointed that not one of his eight colleagues joined him in revising the wording to make it a more clear and accurate description of the intended use of the additional tax revenue.
After gaining no support, Tanaka ended up casting what amounted to a protest vote against putting the measure on the ballot and was joined by Karen Holman and Lydia Kou, who had previously opposed the tax increase because they preferred the city look at scaling back the infrastructure plan or use other funding sources to raising the transient occupancy tax from 14 percent to 15.5 percent, as will appear on the ballot, or to 16 percent, the amount initially proposed.
With years of discussion and widespread agreement among civic leaders that these infrastructure projects are needed and overdue, the primary issue has been how to raise the money. Earlier this year, the council decided on the option that saddles hotels and ultimately visitors with the tax rather than seek a bond measure or impose new taxes on property owners or businesses in general. It is a tactic that many cities are using since voters have repeatedly demonstrated a much greater willingness to increase a tax on hotels than on themselves.
Having already chosen this easier method, the City Council should have sought to be extra careful about accurately describing the reasons for the tax hike. In choosing instead to be guided by polling results, the city opens itself up to potential legal challenges when the measure passes but more importantly suggests that the ends justify a little shading of the details.