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.