The question in the online survey sought to gauge why people would be willing to support a ballot measure to fund more public-transit services. The Public Disclosure Commission says it may violate a law that bars using public funds for political purposes.
An online survey seeking feedback about Sound Transit’s planned expansion of public-transit services may have broken the law with a question that seeks to gauge why people would be willing to support this fall’s ballot measure to fund it, according to a spokeswoman for the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.
After The Seattle Times asked the PDC to review the transit agency’s public-outreach survey on Friday, commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson responded that part of the survey appeared to violate a state law that prohibits spending public funds for political purposes.
“In my opinion, the survey wording suggests that Sound Transit is trying to gauge what voters will approve, which would be an inappropriate use of their resources,” Anderson said in an email Friday afternoon.
After the Times’ inquiry, the PDC contacted Sound Transit, which late Friday removed the questionable question from the survey.
“The intent of the website is to promote public involvement in shaping the Sound Transit 3 final plan, providing input to the Sound Transit Board of Directors,” Sound Transit chief spokesman Geoff Patrick said in an email late Friday. “While the question we removed was intended to help guide how we talk about the rationale for the plan, it was not necessary for informing the Board’s upcoming decisions.”
Patrick, who noted he specifically asked a consultant managing Sound Transit’s outreach campaign for the so-called “ST3” project to include the question, told The Times he would ask lawyers for the transit agency to review the survey and the ST3 website Monday “to assess whether there could be any other potential changes to talk about.”
The survey is a key component of Sound Transit’s “public involvement” phase for helping the agency’s regional board finalize an ST3 ballot measure to put to voters in November.
Released last month, an ST3 draft plan calls for $50 billion in new transit projects and services for King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, funded by $27 billion in new tax collections through 2041, along with existing taxes, long-term debt and federal grants.
Public feedback on what elements should or shouldn’t be included on the ballot measure — garnered via the online survey, public meetings, written comments and other means — will be taken through April 29. The 18-member transit board will decide on a final ballot package in June.
At issue with the 16-question survey is whether it crossed legal lines by using public money for political purposes. Washington law explicitly states “public funds shall not be used to finance political campaigns.”
Question #15, which drew most of Anderson’s concern, came near the survey’s end.
“Here are some reasons people have given for developing the ST3 Draft Plan,” it stated. “After each, please rate which makes you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to support the ST3 draft plan.”
The question goes on to poll respondents about a variety of specific rationales for supporting ST3, with a range of numbered bubbles to gauge the strength of their support.
The question is similar to those polling firms use to help political campaigns determine which messages resonate with voters and are used to help get a measure approved or a candidate elected.
Anderson noted that while Sound Transit is able to conduct research to identify and prioritize transit needs, such “research should still be framed as assessing needs, rather than assessing what voters will approve.”
“I question the need for #15,” Anderson said. “It would be inappropriate for Sound Transit to use their research for message testing.”
EnviroIssues, a Seattle consulting firm, put the survey together as part of public-outreach services provided under a three-year, publicly bid contract with Sound Transit to support development of ST3, Patrick said.
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The consulting firm, initially hired under an $800,000 contract in 2013, received nearly $600,000 more in additional work late last year, including developing the ST3 website, online survey and other aspects of the transit proposal’s public outreach, Patrick said.
Patrick, who has worked for the Seattle consulting firm Cocker Fennessy and for the Washington State House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, said he directed EnviroIssues to include Question #15 on the survey.
“I was interested in seeing what was resonating with people; that’s why I asked EnviroIssues to include that,” he said. “I didn’t run it by our legal staff.”
Patrick noted that after he spoke with Anderson late Friday about the PDC’s concerns, he directed the question be removed from the survey even though Sound Transit has yet to review whether the question was legally inappropriate.
“The main thing she said was that Question 15 appeared to be more political in nature than related to informing board decisions about what to put in the plan,” he said. “I saw her point.”
Agency lawyers will review the survey and website this week and follow up with the PDC, Patrick said.