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CS Fullerton Defends Poll, With Regrets

Survey may have been misleading, officials say. An Irvine councilman's opponent paid for it.

September 17, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Cal State Fullerton officials are defending a political poll conducted in Irvine by university students but acknowledged that it might have been misinterpreted.

University President Milton A. Gordon disclosed that the telephone poll was paid for by a political opponent of Councilman Mike Ward, who this week called it a campaign smear against him.

Gordon released the lengthy questionnaire of 600 Irvine voters by the university's Social Science Research Center and said the $16,308 cost was paid to the CSUF Foundation by HTP & Associates.

HTP & Associates is run by Ed Dornan, the chief political backer of Mayor Larry Agran. In recent elections, Dornan's Hometown Voter Guide, mailed independently on behalf of Agran and his preferred candidates, spent about $1 million producing mailers criticizing campaign opponents, including Ward and Councilwoman Christina L. Shea.

On Wednesday, center director Greg Robinson declined to discuss specifics about the poll, saying the foundation promised to keep the information private. He said the center often works for clients who use the results for political advocacy.

He said neither the university nor the research center is allowed by law to promote candidates for public office. "We regret any misperceptions that this survey project has caused," he said in a statement released Thursday.

Gordon did not address concerns that some questions misstated Ward's positions.

Ward said he was still angry about some of the questions but thanked Gordon for revealing who was behind the poll.

Dornan, he said, was "trying to find out what sleaze would stick with voters. What they said was false and wasn't legitimate at all."

Dornan said late Thursday that the disclosures by Gordon violated a confidentiality agreement he signed with the foundation.

The poll was conducted, Dornan said, to "determine the strengths and weaknesses" of candidates in the Nov. 2 election, including Ward and Councilwoman Beth Krom, who are challenging one other for mayor. Agran's term is up in November, when he is running for a council seat.

The scientific poll showed Ward was "out of sync with Irvine voters," Dornan said. He said he hadn't decided if or how he would use the information in the campaign.

The poll included about 90 questions, most of which are standard queries. Five questions, however, purport to inform voters of policy positions by Ward and then ask if knowing the information would change voters' minds.

Voters were told that Ward supported moving Hollywood Park racetrack and casino to Irvine's proposed Great Park, that he sponsored a 3,000-unit affordable housing project in northern Irvine, that he wanted to build a light-rail line through the Woodbridge neighborhood, that he backed tripling the size of the James A. Musick Branch Jail near Irvine and that he wanted the state to take over the planned Great Park.

Of those five statements, only one is true, Ward said: He sponsored the affordable housing project, which Agran and Krom opposed.

The other statements are false, Ward said, citing council votes and other public statements. For example, Ward made the motion to move the light-rail line away from Woodbridge; he supported moving Hollywood Park horse racing to the Great Park but not the casino; and he pushed for a failed compromise with the county that would have reduced the planned expansion of the Musick jail.

On the final point, Ward said he supported asking the state to develop the Great Park with its own money at a time when the city had no other funding sources.

Dornan stood behind his interpretation of Ward's positions. If anything was incorrect, "he can clarify it in a campaign," Dornan said.

A dozen Irvine residents called to complain about the poll and three residents criticized it before this week's Irvine council meeting. They said the pollsters identified themselves as calling from Cal State Fullerton on behalf of the city.

City officials said they didn't authorize the poll.

Cal State Fullerton officials said Thursday they were considering whether to create or modify policies about the university's polling activities.

Dornan has become a controversial figure in Irvine in recent elections because of his Hometown Voter Guide, which receives money from companies doing business or seeking business with the city.

The mailers are particularly potent because the city limits candidate campaign contributions at $340 per donor. However, there are no limits on slate mailers that list four or more candidates or ballot measures.

Dornan also has been accused by Councilman Chris Mears of having an interest in the fate of a city electric utility, which Dornan has denied.

Besides Krom's mayoral run, Agran is running for a council seat with two other candidates on the Great Park slate. Ward, former Councilman Greg Smith and another candidate form the Irvine First slate.

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