Opinion: Don’t let the survey takers pass you by

When a hard decision needs to be made, should government come to you, or should you go to local government?

That’s one of the questions that’s come to my mind in recent weeks, as I’ve noticed what appears to be a trend: Local cities using a specialized tool to connect with their citizens.

This year, both the cities of Snoqualmie and North Bend turned to a private survey company to gauge local support for tough decisions. In Snoqualmie’s case, the firm, called EMC Research and Northwest Public Affairs, ran a telephone survey to gauge potential support for a levy. The survey laid the groundwork for this fall’s operations levy, and the results showed overwhelming support. Will ECM’s findings end up matching the majority of Snoqualmie voters’ decision this fall? Only time can tell.

North Bend also recently turned to a random phone survey to build consensus on its upcoming police contract decision. They hired EMC to survey at least 100 residents for their opinion on current police services, as provided by the King County Sheriff’s Office. Results from the survey were presented to the council at its Aug. 7 meeting. The same night the council is scheduled to vote Aug. 21 on keeping the contract, in place for 39 years, or switching to Snoqualmie.

Such surveys have their strengths and weaknesses. Done at random, they give elected officials a more objective, scientific look at what their electorate wants.

The flip side of the coin, though, is that the survey could be replacing the old method of depending on active public participation in the decision-making process. Cities typically hold public hearings before making decisions. In Snoqualmie, some topics draw a lot of attention—the annexation of the Mill Site drew big crowds and dozens of speakers last year, many opposed to it for varied reasons; the council’s final decision is slated for this coming Monday; based on past votes, the annexation is likely to pass.

But, contrast that with last month’s meeting on Snoqualmie’s operations levy. No one from the public spoke up, for or against, on the ops levy on the day of the council vote. Only one person from the community took the mic to address it in the run-up to passage.

In North Bend, the council’s opportunity for public comment on the police decision did better, drawing about ten speakers, including a few county residents, last April. Their testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the county contract. The decision to turn to a survey is somewhat surprising—perhaps the turnout at that meeting didn’t give the city an overwhelming mandate, but it was typical, perhaps better than normal. Again, it takes major buzz to draw big crowds to city hall.

During the round of surveys, I heard from one citizen in Snoqualmie who felt that the questions were leading. Officials counter that they are frank. I accept that. But it’s important to keep in mind that these surveys aren’t done in a void: They’re part of a decision-making process and almost a mini-election; in Snoqualmie, they led to a citizen vote; in North Bend, they will lead to a council decision.

It’s too bad that cities have to pay consultants to know what their constituents are thinking. Citizens can certainly make themselves informed and heard, if they so choose, by checking the city website, reading the legal notices in this newspaper, talking to their neighbors, weighing in on the chat groups—and then coming to the hearings, or writing a letter or e-mail.

You may well have an opinion on such basic issues as taxes or police. If you want to be heard, you’d better raise your voice. Who knows, the survey company might not have your number.


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