What did they want to know? Who knows? But they now know many of us know very little.
By Ben Trefry
Two months ago, about a dozen community members were gathered at the Memorial Hall in Bridgeport to participate in a focus-group style study for Nichols Research, enigmatically titled ‘County Concerns’ – which, as it turned out, was commissioned by none other than the LADWP.
The discussion focused on Mono County residents’ opinions of the LADWP, especially in light of the dewatering of Long Valley in southern Mono County, which the LADWP is responsible for. A similar survey took place on October 10, in Bishop.
Participants were compensated with $125 in cash, a killer deal for two hours of time. According to Dion Agee, who participated in the study in Bridgeport, “they were trying to ascertain what our knowledge was of the DWP … [and] to understand what people thought about them – was there goodwill [towards the LADWP]?”
Agee says that of the participants, only two (including himself) were educated about the LADWP and the past issues it’s been involved in – a lack of awareness that frustrates him. “If that’s the ratio of educated people to uneducated people in our community with regards to the DWP, we need to do some community education,” he said.
The leaders of the focus group mentioned some of the positive things that the LADWP has done, such as allowing Diaz Lake (in Inyo County) to be used for recreation, and the group was also shown and asked to respond to what appeared to be possible PR statements and campaigns that the LADWP might consider using in Mono County to improve public opinion.
Agee, who is opposed to the dewatering of Long Valley, was having none of it. “Most of it was laughable – and I told them that,” he said.
The Sheet also reached out to Jessica Johnson of the LADWP, to ask what the goal of the focus groups was. Johnson replied, “as LADWP looks to continue and strengthen our partnerships with these communities, the focus groups were conducted to provide key LADWP staff with a better understanding of the issues the communities care about as well as their knowledge and views of LADWP’s operations in Mono and Inyo counties.”
Johnson also confirmed that the focus groups were intended in part to check the viability of different outreach approaches towards residents and stakeholders in the Eastern Sierra.
Although the focus groups were ultimately very small, with few of those who signed up actually being invited to participate, many residents of Mono County were contacted by Nichols Research via email and encouraged to apply.
According to Mono County supervisor Stacy Corless, several of those who received this email contacted the County asking if they were behind it, probably due to the suggestive title ‘County Concerns’. “I also had a constituent reach out to me because she was selected to participate, and thought [correctly] that LADWP was behind it,” said Corless in an email to the Sheet. “She asked for some background on the Long Valley de-watering issue, and we talked about it,” but this constituent was dropped from the list and did not participate in the focus group.
Based on the information she received from those who did participate, Corless believes that the effort was “in part at least, a classic push poll conducted in order to get their message across to locals … Other motives could be to test their messages, and to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of residents to sow mistrust in their local government.”
According to Johnson, the focus groups were intended only to inform the LADWP about the opinions of residents, and not the other way around. However, Agee said that the questions and discussion appeared to be designed specifically to paint the LADWP in a positive light, which might not be the case if the company was simply trying to inform itself about what people really think.
Agee also said that at the beginning of the discussion, the leaders of the focus group in Bridgeport stated that they would tell everyone who it was they were working for once the discussion was over, but when that time came, they refused to say – even though there were LADWP personnel present to view the results, Johnson said.
Despite his frustration with the LADWP’s tactics and the lack of education on the part of his peers, Agee says, “I felt fortunate that I was picked [to participate], from the standpoint that 8 out of those 10 people there didn’t have a clue about the history of the DWP.”
Supervisor Corless agrees that while the motives of the LADWP in hiring Nichols Research to conduct these focus groups were suspicious, some good could come of the outreach.
“Instead of communicating openly with stakeholders and giving complete project descriptions… they tried spoon-feeding their version of the story to see how much of it people would believe. I hope the survey/focus group results inspired them to try a new and different strategy – one that seeks sustainable solutions for the health of a watershed that we all depend on,” said Corless.