Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Junk Science

In a letter to the editor publsihed in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News on June 20, Montine Vona-Pergola boldly proclaimed:
By definition, a survey is only a portion of the population targeted, and all surveys use the resulting percentages to represent the the population as a whole. PARD's petition signatures are no different.

Thus, if two-thirds of our now more than 8,000 signers against the Wal-Mart Supercenter are from Pullman, then it follows by every academic standard that, if the entire population of Pullman were surveyed, the results would probably be very similar.
Huh? Daily Evergeen readers may remember Ms. Vona-Pergola as the PARD protester who urged the city council to "use the Force" to oppose Wal-Mart at a meeting back in March. "Every academic standard?" Maybe in the Department of Philosophy at WSU, or the Jedi Council, but not in the real world.

PARD announced at a press conference in May that they had obtained 7,500 petition signatures. However, they also admitted that 1/3 of those signatures were obtained from non-Pullman residents. I'm no expert, but I would think if you are trying to determine public opinion in one town, you don't contaminate the survey by going to a town in another state and gather signatures. PARD gathered petition signatures at HyperSpud Sports, Bookpeople, the Moscow Food Coop, the Farmer's Market, and other locations in Moscow, Idaho. So that leaves around 5,000 signatures from Pullman. Students make up around 75% of Pullman’s population. Applying that same ratio to those 5,000 signatures would mean they have around 1,250 permanent resident signatures. 1,250 out of 7,500 permanent residents. Hardly 2/3 of the population. And this is the best-case scenario. PARD has yet to allow public scrutiny (only the press and city officials have been offered the chance to examine them) of their petition. The number of student signatures or duplicate/bogus signatures could be much higher.

Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Berger put it well in this March 12 Spokesman Review article (requires paid subscription to view):
Berger said that because some of the alliance's signature-gathering took place on the WSU campus, it's not indicative of what full-time residents want.

"We feel we have strong support from long-term Pullman residents that know what's good for their community," he said.
Petitions are notoriously unreliable. That's because such petition signers are not selected at random from the general population. That is the point that Ms. Vona-Pergola misses. A petition is hardly a survey. The public and policy makers are not going to pay any more attention to a petition with thousands of signatures from all over the Palouse than they would to a "poll" run for a day on the Web.

Why doesn’t PARD commission a scientifically-based statistical poll? I suspect it is because they fear the results. PARD has tried every way possible to spin their petition numbers and declare a PR “victory.” Quite the contrary. Only obtaining 3-5,000 signatures out of 18,000 fairly liberal college students (28 out of 30 Pullman precincts went for Kerry) is an embarassing defeat. In fact, I believe most students at WSU are for a Wal-Mart, they're just not as vocal. I also think the fact that PARD obtained signatures from outside of Pullman really turned a lot of people in the community off. This latest proclamation just shows their desperation.

Wal-Mart contacted every permanent resident of Pullman by mail (about 9,000 postcards) and received back 6,000 responses. They claim 4,000 of those support Wal-Mart, a ratio of 2 to 1. Wal-Mart also contacted more than 1,000 registered Pullman businesses and an even larger majority expressed support. PARD says that Wal-Mart’s numbers are slanted. I’m more inclined to believe Wal-Mart’s numbers since they sent their survey out on a relatively random basis. Plus, Wal-Mart knows how people really vote: With their wallets. I’m sure Wal-Mart has done extensive studies at their Moscow store of how many shoppers are from Pullman. Many of them I'm sure who signed the PARD petition and will also shop at the one in Pullman, petition or not.

In any case, it doesn’t matter. We don’t “vote” on new businesses in Pullman. As long as the land is zoned for the purpose, any business is free to open after they meet regulatory requirements. As stated in the Daily Evergreen on Janury 25 of this year:
“We want to be extremely careful,” (Pullman Mayor) Johnson said. “We have to treat the developer — no matter who it is — equally.”

...The land Wal-Mart might develop is zoned C-3, or general commercial, and the type of commercial development proposed by Wal-Mart is consistent with the C-3 zoning designation, according to a report presented to the council in November.

Any attempt by the City Council to change the zoning of the property now would be an unconstitutional deprivation of the property owner’s rights to use the property as it is zoned, according to the report.
So, there you have it. Equal protection under the Constitution. Thank God for that.

The proposed Wal-Mart site was zoned C-3 some 23 years ago. 23 years. That is how long it took to get someone to develop that property. No one can say that this process has been rushed. The pace has been positively glacial. Why did Wal-Mart's opponents wait until now to get started?

No comments: