Work with me here while I pretend to be an actual reporter. Not a self-important, politically-incorrect pundit. Nope. An actual reporter such as they puke forth from "J" schools like the University of Missouri, from whence I emanated. I'm going to try to play against type from my normal nasty, snarky, snide, sarcastic, opinionated little self and do what my good friend the Pot Stirrer suggested and report on the facts as I witnessed them recently. So, fair citizen, sit back, open up a Bud, or the adult beverage equivalent of your choice, and let's consider the situation together…
For those of you who don't know, the Chuckmeister has been a happy, loyal and productive resident of the wonderful little city of Costa Mesa, California, for more than 35 years. Mrs. Chuckmeister, too, and all the little Chuckmeisters we've produced along the way. It suits me and my family just fine. Along with another 117,000 or so residents, it appears. Of late, Costa Mesa has found itself embroiled in a monumental controversy that threatens to tear our tight-knit little town apart. Some background for the unanointed out there in Digitalville…
Over the past few years the City has suffered diminished revenues due to a painful recession, which reduced sales tax receipts, and increased expenditures due to ever-escalating costs of operation. The biggest of those costs has been and will be employee labor and healthcare benefits, and the pension contributions that go along with it. Our city budget is down about 20% from its high a few years back and our costs for people is now consuming nearly 85% of all revenues. Data published by the City indicates that over 90% of our public employees earn more than $100,000 per year. A side effect has been a serious reduction in infrastructure expenditures such as for parks, curbs, gutters and street repair. We've burned through more than $30 million of our savings during the past five years and are now $1.5 million short in balancing the 2011- 2012 budget. The Bottom Line: Something had to be done.
The new City Council majority chose to attack the problem this past March 17th by giving layoff notices to nearly half of Costa Mesa's 472 employees. This did not make those who received the pink slips happy. It made their union bosses even less happy. And, sadly, one of those employees chose to take his own life in the aftermath. It also angered a fair percentage of our citizenry, who believe that this action was taken precipitously and without sufficient prior discussion and planning. Since then there's been an ongoing war between the Orange County Employee's Association (OCEA), the union representing the laid-off workers, and the Council majority and City management, who are attempting to outsource the services these folks have been providing. The Union has since sponsored numerous events to try and change the Council's mind, which have on occasion resulted in picketing, yelling, name-calling, personal attacks and threats, as well as a very negative advertising campaign. A group has been formed to try and stop the layoffs, and another has been created to show support for the Council majority's decision. In short, it's a colossal mess and one not likely to be resolved anytime soon.
With this background now provided, let me tell you about a phone call I received last week.
A woman identifying herself as "Monica" was on the phone. She said she was calling from "California Opinion Research" and asked if I would answer a few important questions about a subject that may appear on the ballot during a special election this November. I agreed to participate. I was not expecting what then ensued.
It became immediately apparent that the questions the lady was asking me were clearly of a type known as "push polling." For those not familiar with this term, push poll questions are phrased in such a way as to elicit the desired response. The questions are designed to educate (or indoctrinate) the respondent so that the desired answer to the various questions will be given. An example of such a technique could be, "If you were told that your next door neighbor had stopped beating his wife, would you be a) very happy, b) happy, c) sad, or d) neutral in your feelings." The questions coming at me from Ms. Monica were nearly that transparent. And, by the way, I spent 35 years as a marketing, sales, advertising and P.R. exec, so I'm pretty well versed on the subject.
The poll in my opinion had been bought and paid for by the OCEA. I was even asked if I'd seen the Repair Costa Mesa ads appearing in the paper and on the Internet that they were proudly sponsoring, so I'm comfortable in drawing this conclusion. I answered in the affirmative, commenting that these Internet and newspaper ads were so ubiquitous they would be hard to avoid. Paraphrasing, I was asked questions such as, "If you were told that the top five executives in Costa Mesa paid themselves more than $1.5 million last year and were given more than $50,000 in car allowances, would you approve or disapprove?" A little research tells me that this salary number is inflated by about 300%. And, "If you were told your City's executives had spent $10,000 for carpeting in its executive offices, how would you feel?" We know, and the Union knows, that the carpet and other improvement to the CEO's office cost at most a few hundred dollars and were donated by some of our citizens who wished to make the new CEO feel welcome. And also, "If you were told that 18 city services were being outsourced and half the City's employees were being fired, but that the City's management continues to pay themselves lush salaries and perks, would you be okay with that?" Oh well, you get the idea.
Several questions later I was asked whether I approved or disapproved of the Council majority who voted for the outsourcing plan. I was asked to evaluate and approve or disapprove of each of the four Councilpersons in the majority, one at a time, and then asked if I would vote to recall any or all. I asked the caller if there was a question as to whether I would vote to recall the lone Council person who chose to vote against this plan, as inclusion of this question would tend to make the poll more balanced. I was told that wasn't part of the survey. I was then asked a series of questions about my age and educational level. Surprisingly, I was then asked to state my race. I inquired as to why she needed to know the answer to this question. The caller would not answer and continued to ask the question in a variety of ways until she became convinced I had no intention of answering it.
I then asked the caller where California Opinion Research was located. She said, "California." Cute. She would not supply the address or the city, nor would she tell me who paid for the survey to be conducted, although it was glaringly apparent which organization was behind this very misleading exercise.
I would warn my fellow Costa Mesa residents to be wary of the results of this survey if and when they're made public. By the push polled questions I was asked, they will most assuredly be found uniformly favorable to the employees' union and to their efforts to overturn the Council's outsourcing plans, and uniformly unfavorable to the Council majority's efforts, whether or not those efforts are misguided, to put our City on firm financial footing. They will likely use these suspect results in an effort to underpin a fall recall election geared toward the two members of the Council majority the survey indicates are most vulnerable. Push polling of this type is dishonest and should not be conducted by either side in this controversy. I recommend that the City immediately seek to conduct its own poll in an effort to accurately gauge the residents' actual opinions about this important topic in advance of the Union's possible advertising, marketing and public relations onslaught.
Four points in closing: First, Mrs. Chuckmeister received the very same call the next day, indicating that these folks are dedicated to reaching as many as possible with this little campaign. Second, those who have a negative opinion of union bosses and their tactics will have no reason to change their minds following this little exercise. Third, both sides of this food fight should be held accountable by the electorate and urged not to engage in this type of conduct. Fourth, I did a Google and Bing search on "California Opinion Research." My computer tells me it does not exist. Makes one wonder where those calls are coming from, doesn't it? The Union's offices, perhaps?
I don't know about you, but I'll make it a point to vote come November.