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Poll funded by group against A’s Howard Terminal Ballpark gets its desired result

Lies, danged lies and bad polls. But it’s more than that.

Oakland Athletics Fans Rally
How rooted in the A’s is Oakland?
Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Last Wednesday, the East Oakland Stadium Alliance published the result of a poll they funded to gauge the public’s desire to subject the Howard Terminal Project to a popular vote. The poll surveyed 800 likely voters and found strong support for putting the approval of the Howard Terminal Project into the voter’s hands (76% for — 15% against). The poll results have been described in local news after Oakland City Council Member Fife made headlines proposing the idea in mid-March. The release also found that a similar percentage of voters (75%) want an “independent public fiscal analysis conducted,” but it failed report the exact question that was posed to poll respondents.

Let’s break down all the problems here, because there are many.

The Motivation Behind the Poll

The East Oakland Stadium Alliance (EOSA) is leading one of three legal challenges to the Howard Terminal Project’s now approved Environmental Impact Report. The Stadium Alliance is a coalition of groups — including Schnitzer Steel, the scrap metal company that neighbors Howard Terminal that has been ordered to stop violating state pollution regulations — that want to keep the A’s at their Coliseum current site. The fact that Schnitzer Steel is disputing an EIR after losing a lawsuit the A’s brought against them over their own pollution is obviously ironic.

However, the other groups are primarily comprised of port-related unions who fear their members’ jobs may be at stake. Which is fair enough, every project has costs and benefits. And not everyone has to agree on what the best use of that land is. But this coalition is clearly trying to capture as many special interest groups against the project in as big of a tent as possible. Their goal in creating this poll is not to find some measure of truth, it is only attack the Howard Terminal Project on a new front, and drum up support for the ballot measure idea.

The Pollster

Let me correct that, this pollster isn’t a pollster. Rather, the “opinion research” company EOSA hired to run this poll is the The Mellman Group. As Casey Pratt pointed out on Twitter, they summarize their services on their very own webpage as “We find the messages that influence the decisions of consumers and voters.” Many pollsters have their biases, but this one appears to let their client determine the bias. Or worse yet, the poll itself may be the product created for EOSA to “influence the decisions” — in this case, get the city council to make Howard Terminal’s approval subject to a ballot measure.

The Poll

Let’s just think of this for a moment, pollster calls you up out of the blue and starts by asking you some basic questions: Sex, age, party affiliation, are you an A’s fan. Then, presuming they are behaving faithfully, they would hit you with this: “Should Oakland voters be given an opportunity to vote on whether the city of Oakland should use public funds to support the Oakland A’s privately-owned baseball stadium, condominium, and real estate development at the Howard Terminal site in the Port of Oakland?”

Should voters be allowed to vote? Heck yea!

Should public funds go to support a bunch of private stuff? Nooo!

If you haven’t been digging around, learning about what the heck an Infrastructure Financing District is and how onsite versus offsite infrastructure is being paid for, how are you equipped to answer this question? Clearly the wording is designed to illicit the response that of course they got.

Other than problems with the questions themselves, the poll doesn’t publish any methodology or break down of results. Biasing in poll respondents and poll questions is a whole field of study. For example, we know that the order in which the answers are presented can bias responses (later answers are preferred). A disingenuous pollster can then abuse this knowledge and tip the scales in favor of their desired result. If the pollster doesn’t publish how it conducted the poll and how answers break down, which Mellman Group doesn’t appear to have done, we cannot judge the validity of the poll itself.

The Legitimacy of the Question

Should voters be allowed to directly control city planning? That’s ultimately the question being asked here. Voters may want direct control over many things — it may even sound good that voters have this direct control— but should they have that power?

Our country is not a direct democracy and our state generally followed that lead. Instead, we have a representative democracy, a republic. We have elected leaders who, as Libby Schaaf points out, “are paid to work full time, who have full-time expert staff, who have access to expert consultants, to make these very complicated, technical and long lasting decisions.” Why do we have these (paid) elected leaders if they don’t lead?

Putting all the political theorizing aside, why was the idea of putting this on a ballot even brought up? Are we supposed to think it is pure coincidence that the Council Member that purposed the idea, Carroll Fife, is one of two council members to have voted against the Howard Terminal EIR (the other was Noel Gallo)? No, this is yet another attempt to kill the Howard Terminal Project by those opposed to it. Supporters of putting this to a ballot measure know that in doing so the cost and delays to the project would be too great and the project would die. Can you even imagine the A’s putting together a campaign to get out the vote for a Howard Terminal Ballpark? I can’t.

Moving Forward

Let’s hope the other members of the Oakland City Council don’t buy into this poll, or the messaging coming from the EOSA that this is a good idea. But even if they don’t, at least three major next steps remain:

Team President Dave Kaval has mentioned he’d like the final City Council vote over the summer, but Councilmember Gallo is making suggestions that more work needs to be done to understand the financial impact of the project. No date to hold this vote has been set.

The three lawsuits against the EIR, however, need to be resolved within 270 days from the date of approval, which puts the deadline in November and limits how long they can delay the project. These lawsuits include the one mentioned above from the EOSA and two separate lawsuits related to the impacted rail lines in the area from Union Pacific Rail Road and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority.

All that and somehow I expect more hurdles, potholes and speed bumps to come. Someone is probably going to have to buy me a thesaurus that specializes in words for things that get in your way before this is over.