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Community Survey Results Questioned by Council And Public

If you don’t like the results of a survey, just call into question the methods used to gather the data — at least that is what many attending the Santa Clara City Council’s priority-setting session seemed content to do.

At the first of two priority-setting sessions Monday, many, including several Council members, challenged the results of a community survey conducted by EMC Research, a public opinion consultant.

The scientific survey aimed to encapsulate what matters to Santa Clarans. EMC Research contacted 600 residents through various means, from text messages to cell phones, from landlines to email and in multiple languages, including English, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Spanish.


“Because this is a representative sample and a scientific survey, we can project the results onto residents of the City within the margin of error,” said Jessica Polski-Sanchez with EMC Research.

The survey’s margin of error was 4%.

Notable was how much the public and Council members alike pushed aside notions that certain topics — often those talked about at length during Council meetings — were not a major concern of residents at-large.

According to the survey, the contrary proves to be true. If the survey is to be believed, many of the topics the Council spends its time reacting to are little more than the strident concerns of very vocal minorities and not representative of the community as a whole.

For instance, while much ado has been made about revitalizing the City’s downtown, access to transportation and climate change, only 2% of respondents listed any of those topics as a major concern. Similarly, issues with the management of Levi’s Stadium, another topic that the Council spends a great deal of time discussing, only garnered a measly 3%.

Conversely, access to below-market-rate housing, homelessness and crime made up 44% of the responses.

Some Council members questioned how the survey was conducted.

“Polls are always suspect, you might say,” Council Member Suds Jain said.

Council Member Kevin Park said concerns about below-market-rate housing and homelessness are “bread and butter” issues that the City needs to address anyway. He noted that every city in the Bay Area likely lists those as the top two concerns.

“Sometimes consistency is a result of overgeneralization,” Park said. “It kind of makes Santa Clara seem like any other city, and I think that when we are trying to set priorities for Santa Clara in particular, we really need to know, we really need to drill down enough to understand what makes Santa Clara different. What are the things that Santa Clara really needs to focus on?”

Park even went so far to play a No-True-Scotsman card and say that “people who know the City” are concerned about revitalizing downtown, suggesting that the 600 respondents to the survey do not know the City.

Similarly, results of the survey indicated that many residents are rather satisfied with the City’s sports and recreation offerings. This seemingly contradicts public feedback at previous Council meetings, especially relating to the closing of the George Haines International Swim Center (ISC) and the BMX track.

The denial even carried over to the portion of the priority-setting session where the Council looked forward to the next 10 years. They listed true statements they would like to remain true in 10 years and untrue statements they would like to become true during the same period. Even these statements disproportionately dealt with sustainability, the revitalization of downtown, the ISC and Levi’s Stadium.

According to the survey, one of residents’ chief complaints — with 67% of respondents listing it as such — was that its government doesn’t focus on the priorities of the community.

Everybody Wants Some

Public comments in relation to the survey bear out a similar sentiment, with many of the commenters being members of city commissions or local organizations, most of whom had their hands held out.

“Surveys can be constructed to come up with any answers you want, so we have to be very careful,” said Vikas Gupta, a parks and recreation commissioner who, as a citizen, has been advocating for the City to invest in the ISC.

Paul McNamara, a cultural commissioner, advocated for the arts master plan while expressing skepticism of the survey.

“A survey is like a blood sample: it is one shot at one time,” he said.

Jan Hintermeister, who sits on the library board, said “surveys depend on the questions you ask.” He added that the City needed to prioritize spending more money to re-expand the library’s hours.

Vice Mayor Anthony Becker inquired whether those surveyed were asked about the topics that received poor responses or whether they had been “educated” on them.

Ironically, Becker seemed to be under the impression that residents would be more inclined to see the aforementioned topics as top concerns if they were primed to think so. Doing so would not meet criteria for a scientific survey.

Although many alluded to a survey being able to be manipulated to solicit a specific answer, no one seemed to inquire or even posit why EMC Research would have any interest in residents answering in a certain way.

Still, questioning the survey results is not out of bounds. After all, even the qualifier “scientific” is a misnomer. Surveys, even ones labeled such, are not scientific. They do not use the scientific method. They are guesswork — sophisticated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless.

A Report Card of Sorts

Another takeaway was that across three questions posed by EMC Research, respondents rated the City worse depending on the specificity of the question. The questions inquired whether respondents felt Santa Clara was a good place to live, how its future looked and how good a job those running the City are doing.

Negative responses rose from the first to the last question, as the questions got more specific, ticking up from 17% to 28% to 29%, respectively. Further, the positive responses to each question declined, again correlated with the question’s specificity, dropping from 28% to 19% to 11%.

Questions asked of survey respondents: Santa Clara is a positive place to live (vague) I am excited about the future of Santa Clara (general) The overall performance of those running the City (specific)
Most positive result 28% 19% 11%
Most negative result 17% 28% 29%

In general, residents feel quite positive about the City.

“Overall, majorities are feeling either excited or happy or future-looking across these demographic subgroups — across gender, across age groups, across ethnicity and across council districts,” Polski-Sanchez said.

Again, however, so-called “affordable” housing continued to rear its head, with Polski-Sanchez saying there is “widespread concern” surrounding it. Broken down by ethnic demographic, the survey shows that the issue is most pressing to whites and Latinos, with 93% and 89%, respectively, listing it as a top issue. 

Respondents in each district more or less saw each of their respective Council members favorably. There were, however, slight discrepancies even when taking into account the margin of error.

Residents of District 1, Council Member Kathy Watanabe’s district, were most satisfied, with 38% listing their approval as “excited or happy” and only 17% being categorized as “disillusioned.” On the other end of the spectrum, District 3 residents, Council Member Karen Hardy’s, saw their numbers more or less inverted, with only 17% listing their satisfaction as “excited or happy” and 32% categorized as “disillusioned.”

Infrastructure Needs Still Cast a Long Shadow

With Monday’s meeting being the first priority-setting session since the start of the pandemic, many items had been deferred to it. City Manager Jovan Grogan diplomatically implored the Council to examine the list of “priorities” — a list that is 54 items long — and determine what might be able to be cut.

Grogan said with a 12.5% vacancy in City positions, the Council can expect a “growing workload with fewer employees” that is “only projected to get worse.” He urged the Council to “be mindful of the bandwidth of the organization.”

Always looming is the specter of the City’s infrastructure needs, which total more than $600 million. More than $200 million in administrative needs, $168 million in public building needs and nearly $50 million in storm sewer needs top the list of capital improvement projects.

While Grogan said most funded projects have dedicated funding, the City’s budget situation leaves no room for service expansion, capital maintenance or building the City’s reserves.

He called maintenance and replacement a “double-edged sword.”

“We don’t have enough money for maintenance, and we don’t have enough money to replace,” Grogan said. “And every year that you don’t provide maintenance, and every year you don’t replace something that is broken, the cost goes up, and we know what inflation does.”

In 2028, the City’s budget deficit reaches $17.7 million. That figure does not include any money the City might see from the Related project or money it might be able to unfreeze from its legal contingency should two lawsuits against the 49ers go its way.

As a result, Grogan said the City is still pursuing a general obligation bond to help pay for the infrastructure needs. The City plans to put a measure on the ballot in November asking the public to foot the bill for the maintenance.

Still, should those funding sources come through, that would still not solve the problem. Grogan said they are “a piece of the pie; they are not the pie.”

“With an operating budget deficit that looks like this, the ability to infuse money without outside resources is just not there,” Grogan said.

The Council will meet for its second priority-setting session April 8.


1 Comment
  1. Cynical Red Neck Engineer 4 months ago

    Supply and Demand determine prices; housing prices too. Santa Clara (and all of Silicon Valley) have built too much commercial space and not enough housing. Business pays the Calpers pensions (and fill campaign coffers) so city workers make great efforts to attract and accommodate them. The only reason the City is now concerned about housing is because businesses are. They have to pay #*&$@ huge salaries so people can live here. For the cost of a condo in Santa Clara, you can get a 4000 sq/ft house on10 acres just outside of Durham North Carolina. How do our housing prices stay so high?! Ranch 99 and Cricket Clubs. Many recent immigrants and people of color work in Silicon Valley and have been taught at our prestigious local universities, where in addition to engineering, they also learned that America is a racist country. They are afraid to leave their newly ensconced ethnic enclave in Santa Clara, unless they can afford the Mandarin elementary school in Cupertino. But they will learn and they will move out. Certainly their kids will. It’s the story of America. Until then, there is a glut of commercial office space that could be rezoned to housing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the new Apartments/Condos on East El Camino. More please.

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