Whitecaps

Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Name:
Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.


Monday, August 27, 2007

The Cost of Public Information

As a taxpaying resident of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, I wanted to know just what almost $33,000 of the public's money bought when the City contracted with an out-of-state private consultant to conduct a survey about police service here. The City Clerk told me she would be happy to tell me, but it would cost me approximately $537.11 plus the costs of copying the information to find out. Just send a personal check, thank you. If there's any left over, we'll refund it.

My inquiry was precipitated by a July 20, 2007, article in the Coeur d'Alene Press by staff writer Marc Stewart. His article was headlined Survey: Residents feel safe in Coeur d'Alene. Stewart's article briefly reported on the results of a study commissioned and paid for by the City of Coeur d'Alene. The study was reportedly conducted to measure how safe people feel in Coeur d'Alene and how satisfied we are with our police department. The consultant, The Results Group, LTD of Hood River, Oregon, was paid approximately $33,000 to conduct the study and make recommendations based on its findings.

In his article, Stewart reported that, "Three hundred and fifty people were interviewed for the survey and 99 percent said they felt safe while shopping in Coeur d'Alene and 99 percent said they felt safe while at home." The Results Group President Stephen Kane commented that his company had "...never had such a high score."

Later in the article, Stewart reported, "The consultant said the department should stop yielding to 'C.A.V.E. People,' which stands for citizens against virtually everything." In his next paragraph Stewart quoted from the report: "We are aware that there are very small groups of people here and there throughout the community -- who apparently take mean-spirited delight in second-guessing any and everything that city administration and CPD leadership does. However, through their own choices, I believe naysayers and second-guessers will make themselves irrelevant to the future."

I was one of the 350 people selected to be called and interviewed by telephone. None of the questions I was asked during the interview would have elicited anything even remotely close to the "C.A.V.E. People" comment which showed up in the report. The term is not in common usage in Coeur d'Alene. It has been used locally by one particular city council member and a Spokane newspaper gossip columnist who both seem intent on discrediting citizen advocates critically examining local government.

Stewart's article reported that The Results Group, LTD, also interviewed community "stakeholders", people identified by the city administration who would "most likely be key influencers of public opinion". One of those stakeholders was Idaho State Police Captain Clark Rollins. Given the highly inflammatory nature of the "C.A.V.E. People" comments, it is unlikely the consultant would have included them unless several respondents repeated them. I wondered if someone may have encouraged some of the stakeholders (those "key influencers of public opinion") to be certain The Results Group, LTD, interviewers heard the "C.A.V.E. People" message consistently and frequently enough to ensure its inclusion in the final report.

Why would I or anyone else care about the "C.A.V.E. People" allusion? Because the study was paid for with public money, and the newly hired police chief was given a copy of the report. He has indicated he will use it to form the department's action plan and mission statement. Effectively, someone appeared to be using this term to deride and discredit citizens for their efforts to shed light on Coeur d'Alene city government operations. I wanted to see the context surrounding the remarks and know exactly who made them. Couple that with Mr. Kane's comment about the uniquely high score, and it's clearly justified for someone to seek an objective review of the study.

Wanting to know more about the survey's methodology and the extent of the City's financial relationship with The Results Group, LTD, I sent an Idaho Public Records Law request to Coeur d'Alene City Clerk Susan Weathers on August 1. She reponded on August 3 that it would take the City another seven working days to assemble all the information. Her letter of August 14 said the City estimated it would cost $537.11, and it explained how that cost was determined. Her explanation strongly suggested that the City had more extensive dealings with The Results Group, LTD. For example, a Google search using "The Results Group, LTD" revealed this solicitation for The Sergeant's Academy presented by The Results Group, LTD, and sponsored by the Coeur d'Alene Police Department. It was my desire to learn just how much money The Results Group, LTD, is making by having an ongoing financial relationship with Coeur d'Alene. That knowledge would help support or refute any suggestions that The Results Group, LTD, study had been manipulated.

A review and screenshot of The Results Group, LTD, website on August 1, 2007, revealed this statement:

"Did You Know? ... that we don't want ANY one of our clients to ever put anything on a ballot - unless we can count the votes BEFORE the election? Contact us about helping you put together your next funding campaign - or helping you design an election campaign for public office!"

Since Coeur d'Alene will be having an election in November for three councilmember positions, the possible involvement of The Results Group, LTD, in any local political campaigns seemed a logical course of inquiry. Councilmembers who approved the contract with The Results Group, LTD are up for re-election. It will be interesting to see if any of their campaign finance reports reveal any affiliation with The Results Group, LTD, or its principals or agents.

Given all the preceding information, it was my intention to provide the public information sought to at least one and maybe more accredited university behavioral sciences departments (outside Idaho and beyond the reach of Idaho government officials) to ask for an evaluation of the quality and validity of the information for which the citizens of Coeur d'Alene had paid almost $30,000. This would have in effect been an objective peer review of The Results Group, LTD, work.

If anyone used false or misleading information or tactics to manipulate The Results Group, LTD's, report, then arguably the state crime of theft by deception has been committed. The citizens whose $30,000 was spent would be the victims since they would have been deprived of a truthful product. Not only would Coeur d'Alene residents be justifiably upset, so would The Results Group, LTD, if its professional reputation has been harmed by some external manipulation of its honest work product.

I asked the City to waive all the fees and costs associated with my Idaho Public Records Law request. State law provides for that waiver if the public's interest and the public's understanding of the operations or activities of government or its records would suffer by the assessment or collection of any fee. I explained that:

  • The public will better understand the financial relationship that exists between the City and a private contractor, The Results Group, LTD. The public is entitled to know the extent of that relationship so it can evaluate the validity and reliability of the information for which public money was paid.

  • The public will better understand why and how The Results Group, LTD, a private out-of-state contractor was selected to conduct the study in lieu ofusing the behavioral science research services available from colleges and universities.

  • The public, particularly students, will better understand the value of behavioral science research to the criminal justice system.

  • The public, particularly students, will better understand how to assess behavioral science research methodology and how to criticall evaluate contractors who seek to provide it.

  • The public will be able to make the work of this private out-0f-state contractor available for peer review by objective behavioral scientists not under any financial pressure from or obligation to the City. The police department is entitled to receive unbiased information, conclusions, and recommendations, and the public whose money funded the study is entitled to review what the police department received to ensure an absence of any bias.

Included with my waiver request was also a request that in order to make the information sought widely available to the public for its own review, the City should also place it in the North Idaho College Library, the Coeur d'Alene City Library, and the Kootenai Shoshone Area Library (Hayden Branch).

The City determined that I had failed to meet the legal standard required to have the fees and costs waived. By extension, it is also refusing to place the information I sought in the libraries unless I agree to pay for its placement.

So, the City's answer to my question about what did our nearly $30,000 in public money buy us is simple: Give us a check for $537.11 and agree to pay additional costs for copying and we'll tell you. (I wonder if the news media who received the report had to pay for it?)

I won't pay. Given what we know about how Coeur d'Alene City Hall operates, sending a check for $537.11 and agreeing to pay even more if the City says it needs more would be like going to a homebuilder who has already given me reason to distrust him, giving him all the money up front, and then hoping he delivers on his promise to build the house I want without ever showing me the plans. No one would be foolish enough to do that.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Idaho escapeP said...

Sounds to me like the powers that be in CDA just spent $30,000 dollars to delude themselves. Personally, I don't like CDA cops. They are very revenue-prone.

8:18 PM, August 27, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Idaho EscapeP,

Self-delusion may have been one motive. It may also have been using public money to pay for background information for a sales pitch supporting the re-election of three incumbents in the November council election.

There were enough red flags to question the survey. I have the background and education to raise questions about the methodology used in the survey. My preference, though, was to submit the City's information (had they provided it accurately and completely) to a university to have an analysis done by qualified social scientists. The social scientists to whom I showed the survey echoed the justification for impartial review.

On a more basic level, I questioned why the city chose to use a private out-of-state contractor/consultant rather than going to any of the universities with graduate programs in behavioral sciences. A university's work would be open and subject to peer review whereas a contractor's work and materials may be contractually shielded from from disclosure. (That may have been one of the City's motives for using a private out-of-state contractor.) I also wanted to know the contractor's track record doing this type of survey. The Results Group, LTD, is Idaho POST certified for providing training, but that certification is pretty much irrelevant as far as conducting surveys is concerned. I searched the archives of the Council Meeting minutes but couldn't find anything particularly definitive to explain how or why The Results Group, LTD, was selected to receive almost $30,000 of public money. Clearly the company does have other financial ties to the City, and I thought readers and citizens might be entitled to decide if those ties resulted in bias being injected into the methodology. Without all the information I requested from the City (the final study alone would not have been enough), it is inappropriate to conclude that The Results Group, LTD, survey was either valid or invalid. More information was needed, and that's what I was looking for.

Though I didn't mention it in the post, Marc Stewart's newspaper article did talk about the consultant's recommendation that the police department begin to use strategic planning. Information about strategic planning is readily available for free on the internet; the city didn't need to pay for it. Major law enforcement agencies have been using it for years, so it's not like it's a new concept.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

7:17 AM, August 28, 2007  
Blogger Dogwalkmusings said...

Bill, what a great post. And a frightening one.

I'm surprised HBO featured it!

The upcoming campaign for council will be very interesting to watch and I fear will be quite contentious.

11:18 AM, August 28, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Dogwalkmusings,

Thank you. It wasn't my intent to frighten anyone. I just wanted to get the survey assessed by a qualified neutral third party. The City spent about $30,000 of public money on a survey of questionable need and value. To me it would have made more sense to wait until after selecting the new chief and then decide if a survey would be beneficial and what it should try to measure. What the City did made little sense.

I'm not suggesting that The Results Group, LTD, did anything improper. There's no way to say yea or nay to that without looking at the information I had requested from the City.

If I conclude (or jump to the conclusion) that what the City wanted to charg me was fair and reasonable, then I also have to conclude there is a lot of information, a lot of correspondence, between the City and The Results Group, LTD. The consultant is an Idaho POST certified trainer, so I suspect some of the contact had to do with training. Nevertheless, training programs can be very lucrative for the provider. It is fair for taxpayers to ask what part, if any, collateral financial dealings between the City and the consultant played in The Results Group, LTD, selection to do the survey.

12:32 PM, August 28, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was federal money used to fund this bogus survey?

9:46 PM, August 30, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

anonymous,

I don't know. The City plays manipulative games with its various appropriations and funds, so it would be pretty difficult to pin down exactly which one the study came from.

6:20 AM, August 31, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

gee, you say the city manipulates things, but we citizens should trust you? why? sounds like you have an agenda.

9:26 PM, September 08, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for reading and commenting.

9:46 AM, September 09, 2007  
Blogger Maverick said...

Great posting Bill! It was selected to be included in last week's Carnival of Open Records.
Thanks, Sara

9:47 AM, September 18, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recent changes to the FOIA Act include bloggers as members of the news media, who usually get their charges waived. Give it a try!

2:47 PM, March 19, 2008  

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