Happy City, USA

Every two years the City of Santa Monica hires a polling company to conduct a survey of public opinion, and the latest report has just been released. Jason Islas wrote a good summary of the report for The Lookout, but it’s worth taking a look at the report itself. (Which is accessible through the City’s staff report —the whole survey can be downloaded as a PDF from a link at the end of the report.)

What the survey shows is that Santa Monicans are aware of and care about a full range of urban issues and have a sophisticated understanding of how city government responds to those issues. But when reading the report one needs to take into account that the pollsters ask two kinds of questions: open-ended questions and direct questions, and the distinction is important for understanding the results.

When investigating what issues residents think are important the pollsters start with an open-ended question, asking their respondents, without giving any suggestions, to name one or two “most important issues” facing the city. Asked this way, no single issue (which was “too many homeless”) was mentioned by more than 29% of the respondents; one other issue, traffic congestion, was mentioned by 28%, and after that there was a quick drop off — 13% mentioned lack of parking, 10% cited too much development, and so on.

So from this it appears that there aren’t many issues that excite residents; good news at least is that when given two chances to bring up a problem, no more than 29% of Santa Monicans agree on any given problem as being important. At least this indicates that there is no single issue that has masses of us in a panic.

But the message is different if you look at the answers to questions where the pollsters name issues that might be important and the respondents aren’t limited to only two responses. When the survey asked residents to evaluate the importance of seven specific issues, clear majorities found that four issues (traffic (63%), affordability of housing (63%), number of homeless (62%), and lack of parking (57%)) were “very” or “somewhat” serious issues; lesser percentages believed that the three other issues were very or somewhat serious (amount of development (43%), crime (20%), and youth violence (15%)).

The universe of concern expands even further when the pollsters ask about city services. The poll asked respondents to evaluate 23 specific city services (from providing emergency services, to keeping traffic flowing, to providing affordable housing, to providing services to youth, etc., etc.) as to how important they were; what do you know, but according to the survey, majorities of Santa Monicans believe that all 23 services are important.

I said two paragraphs ago that how the questions are asked leads to a different message, but I want to amend that – in fact it’s the same message. Santa Monica residents have a broad understanding of what role a city government plays in managing our society, and an understanding of how complex the problems are. They’re not panicked about anything: when asked about how good a job City Hall does in providing each of those 23 types of services, on every issue only minorities of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the City’s performance. By a ratio of 2-1 respondents said they believed they had the opportunity to voice concerns to the City.

On the most basic question — when the pollsters asked them how good a place Santa Monica was to live — 92% said it was either an excellent place to live (60%!) or “pretty good.”

Yet some people still wonder why incumbents get reelected and why Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, the dominant political organization for 30 years, is the Number One brand name in local politics.

Much political discourse in our town invokes crisis – we seem to bounce from one to another, in response to whoever is complaining, and how loudly, about something at any given moment. They always say they represent the residents.

But our residents cannot be generalized about – except perhaps in the City’s motto: “Populus felix in urbe felice.”

Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Happy City, USA

  1. Pingback: About that City Council Election: Who Besides the Winning Candidates Won? | The Healthy City Local

  2. Just like accounting, polls can be easily manipulated to confirm the results you want. This poll of .00447 percent of the city’s population is highly suspect. I read through both The Lookout and the staff report cited in your post and none of the data was broken down by where in Santa Monica the respondents live, years lived in the city, income and all the other details that can predict poll results. Were those polled residents from different parts of Santa Monica? Were the residents renters, home owners and business owners who live in the city or only home owners? I’ve lived in Santa Monica for over 22 years, have always had a land line, and have never been polled by this city. I suspect any home owner who lives near Santa Monica College will have different priorities than home owners north of Montana, different from those who live around Main St., near the Airport or those who live in the high construction area of Colorado/Lincoln Blvd.. I’d like to know whether the poll results varied when parsed by renters vs. home owners vs. business owners. The poll results are too vague to say that only 29% identify any one issue as a priority when our experiences of living in Santa Monica varies so much. A home owner north of Montana will have less of a sense whether over development is a problem because they don’t have to live with it every day. I live between Santa Monica Blvd. and Colorado (targeted redevelopment zone) and walk almost everywhere in Santa Monica. I get very upset with construction that blocks pedestrian access to whole segments of sidewalk and intersection for weeks so a new high rise building can burst forth; I imagine someone in a car or bike who lives in another part of the city would not notice closed sidewalks. Traffic is not as high a priority for me (except when I’m run over by a sidewalk cyclist), over development is but I live in the midst of the relentless cacophony of too-zealous development approved by city planners. It’s alarming to read, according to The Lookout, the city’s “Leadership” (who is that exactly?) intends to use the polling results as important “feedback” for development. If that’s true, than it won’t take a psychic to predict that Santa Monica will look like Palm Beach along Ocean Blvd., with endless Scandinavian high rises that tower as far as the eye can see along all the city’s through streets between Montana and Rose. The poll results appear to me to be a veiled attempt to convince Santa Monica residents that the city planners, city “leadership” (again, who?) and elected officials are taking Santa Monica in their predetermined “right” direction.

    • Dee — thanks for your response. Two things, one substantive, the other procedural. Substantively, your points are well taken but the methodology of the poll is included in the survey report, including the demographics. Also these results are quite consistent over the 13 years the polling has been done, and, as the Republicans found when they challenged Nate Silver and his use of polls, I believe the results of the poll can be trusted. As for procedure, I hope not to have anonymous comments on the blog. I made an exception for you since you have a blog on WordPress yourself, but in the future I hope that if you comment on this blog, and I hope you will do so, that you identify who you are. Thanks, Frank

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