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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Push Polling versus Persuasion

You may not be surprised to hear that the city council is getting a lot of e-mails and phone calls on the topic of organized trash collection. (If you want to share your own thoughts on this topic, I encourage you to do so -- you can e-mail the whole council at once by writing to city.council@ci.maplewood.mn.us.)  As usual, I'm working hard to reply to every e-mail and return every phone message.

A couple of folks have asked, in essence, "How can you even consider doing this when it's obvious that most people are vehemently opposed?"

Setting aside the question of whether elected officials are supposed to do what they believe is popular versus what they conclude is right, let me say that it's absolutely not clear to me that a majority of residents would oppose development of an organized collection plan.

There's a big PR campaign underway, not to educate residents, but to prompt them to contact the City Council in support of the NSWMA's protect-the-status-quo-profits agenda. It's crafted to generate the impression of broad popular support for their position. Turning out a passionate minority to advocate for your position (including various residents declaring as "fact" things you know to be false, and know better than to be caught saying on the record yourself) is not the same as speaking for a majority of the citizens. In their fight against the facts and the public good, NSWMA has relied on this skillful illusion of a popular majority to suppress efforts at organization in Minnesota over the past two decades.

Consider for example the "survey" on their website, which is mentioned in their mass mailing.  The "survey" consists of only one checkbox, which is marked: "Check here, if you are opposed to government managed waste collection. By checking this box, you also give us approval to share information about your opposition and your comments with local officials."  (The NSWMA postcard last fall similarly was a "survey" with the only explicit option being to agree with them.  You had to write in your own somewhere on the card, as numerous people did, if you didn't agree with what they wanted you to say.)

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that at our March 28th hearing, NSWMA's lawyer will tell us that darn near 100% of respondents to their online survey opposed organized collection.  He won't even be able to share the comments of anyone else, because the web form is set up so that you must agree with them in order to authorize them to share your opinion with the city. As a gauge of resident opinion, their "survey" will be worthless.  But remember, it's not really a survey; its purpose is to push peoples' buttons so that they will lobby their Council with the NSWMA's talking points.  (As I heard from a couple of folks on Friday, NSWMA wasn't even answering their phone if you tried to call them about their mailer.)

I've been tracking the opinions of people who contact me to get a read on public sentiment on the question, "Should we consider organizing our trash collection?" and how it might be changing.  I have built a database of everyone who has phoned or e-mailed.  It also includes all the people who sent those postcards last fall, if they had an e-mail address; I had manually entered all that info so that I could send them all my FAQ in reply.

So at the outset, because of the NSWMA PR campaign, I think it's reasonable to expect the comments we receive to be overwhelmingly skewed toward their side of the issue.  The numbers bear this out: people who have contacted me have started out 91.6% against organization, 1.7% neutral or undecided; and 6.7% in favor.

That's total.  If you look at just the e-mail I've received since Friday and the latest NSWMA mailer, it is interesting that opposition has dropped to 74%; 3% neutral; and 23% favoring organized collection.  At least one in six anti-organization writers had also written us last fall (the "at least" meaning I don't know if more sent in postcards without an e-mail address on it); the only pro-organization person who had written previously...was previously opposed, but has changed her mind.

By Saturday afternoon, I had already received more e-mails in favor of organization than I got in the entire run-up to October's hearing.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the other opinion I'm tracking: What do people think now, after I've had the chance to offer them more information?  If they reply to my e-mail, what position do they now take?  If we talk on the phone, what is their opinion at the end of the conversation?

The results are remarkable: Opposition to organized collection drops to 44.0%.  37.6% favor organized collection.  18.4% are willing to see us try to develop a plan that they could evaluate.  And remember, we're starting with a sample that was skewed by the NSWMA's hoodwinking campaign.

Obviously this is not a random sample or scientific polling.  But it does tell me that, if given information about what we're actually considering and why, a majority of residents agree that we should develop an organized collection plan and see how it compares to the current system.

Whether or not to actually implement a specific plan is, of course, a different question, one we can't meaningfully ask unless we pass the "resolution of intent to organize" and move into the planning phase.

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