By WARREN CORNWALL
A poll by the city of Everett is threatening to shatter the fragile peace between city leaders and Community Transit.
The poll about the future of city and county bus systems, and its release to the press, provoked angry charges from CT’s chief that the city had gone behind the county bus agency’s back and that the city was trying to influence public opinion.
"We made some agreements about how we were going to proceed, and then they didn’t live up to it," said Joyce Olson, CT’s executive director.
City executive director Don Hale, however, defended the $30,000 poll as an effort to learn what Everett voters think as city officials contemplate transit’s future. He dismissed Olson’s claim that the city had broken earlier promises of cooperation with CT.
"That’s totally not true," he said.
The dispute comes at a sensitive time in the long and often stormy relationship between the two governments.
After more than two decades of efforts by CT to take over the city’s bus service, the two sides in June agreed to study ways to work together more closely.
As part of that deal, the parties agreed to exchange directions to separate consultants examining the two systems, share the consultants’ findings and check with each other before talking with the media, Olson said.
In the case of the poll, however, Olson said she didn’t learn of it until a CT employee’s mother reported getting a call from the pollsters. The transit agency then filed a public record request with the city. On Monday, the city responded by sending the poll to CT, as well as The Herald and four other media outlets.
"That doesn’t sound like an agency that really wants to sit down and talk about a positive solution to this issue," Olson said.
Hale, however, said the poll was outside any deal with CT. It was simply aimed at helping city officials gauge Everett voters’ opinions, he said.
"I think this type of an issue was not on the table at all," he said.
The two sides also disagreed over what the poll results mean.
Hale said the findings confirm local leaders’ concerns that combining the two bus systems could raise Everett’s sales tax and threaten local control.
The telephone poll of 500 likely Everett voters found that 41 percent of people thought a merger was a good idea, compared with 33 percent who thought it was a bad idea. Nearly 50 percent said they would at least lean toward voting for a merger, while 39 percent went the other way.
That changed, however, when people learned a merger would double the city’s transit sales tax from three-tenths of a penny to six-tenths, with a possible later increase to nine-tenths. The vote switched to 30 percent on the favorable side, and 60 percent at least leaning toward voting against the merger.
"Obviously taxpayers are sensitive about increases in taxes," Hale said.
That negative response was repeated almost exactly when people were asked whether they would support the merger if "the additional sales taxes would be used to restore service outside of Everett rather than increasing service in Everett."
Hale said that, and responses to several other questions, showed people’s concerns about handing over control to an agency with leadership outside the city.
Olson, however, charged that some of the poll’s questions steered people to reject the merger by focusing on potentially negative results.
"What the poll was doing was trying to form their opinions, not find out facts," she said.
As an example, Olson pointed to the question stating the added sales tax wouldn’t by used to increase service in Everett.
"Clearly we would not do that; we would improve service," she said.
Olson also pulled some support for her position from the poll, noting that people generally favored improved efficiency and savings by combining the two agencies. Community Transit has long argued the two could save money by combining and getting rid of duplicate bus routes and services.
Don McDonough, a partner at the survey firm that conducted the poll, Evans/McDonough Research Co., defended the polling questions. They were designed to test people’s responses to different ideas and to facts, he said.
"At no part of the survey was it designed to ask questions that would lower opinions of Community Transit," he said.
In the wake of the polling furor, Olson said she still hoped the two sides could look at the reports and figure out a way to work together.
But she sounded doubtful.
"It doesn’t look very promising for our negotiations, and that’s too bad," she said.
Hale said the poll results will help guide city decisions about whether to pursue combining with CT. Did he think it signaled Everett voters would be willing to approve the merger?
"The answer would probably be no," he said.
The complete text of the poll questions, and the results, will be available at www.heraldnet.com at 8 a.m. today.
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