Hughes Survey Sparks New Fight Over Malibu Cityhood

Times Staff Writer

In the first salvo fired in the Malibu incorporation campaign, the Hughes Aircraft Co. has hired a public opinion research firm to canvass residents of the famed coastal town for a survey that cityhood advocates say is designed to spread misinformation about incorporation.

Officials at Hughes, which has a research laboratory in the hills above Malibu's civic center, deny the charge. They say the opinion poll is designed strictly for "in-house use" for employees, executives and shareholders.

World's First Laser

The Malibu research lab, which opened in 1958, is the site where the world's first laser was built, and employs about 500 scientists and technicians. Hughes officials had sought to have the research lab removed from the proposed city boundaries, but their request was rejected by Local Agency Formation Commission members, who approved Malibu's cityhood petition in May. Although the company has not formally come out against cityhood, Hughes officials told LAFCO commissioners that they wanted to remain under the county's jurisdiction.

The survey, conducted over a period of two weeks, was done by Lawrence Research of Santa Ana. James Hurt, director of public affairs for Hughes, said the survey of 350 Malibu residents was completed over the weekend, and the results will be compiled in two or three weeks. A worker with the research firm estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 people were contacted by phone to get 350 respondents.

Hurt said the results would be released only to Hughes employees, adding that the survey was designed solely to provide information to workers and shareholders who might be affected by incorporation in Malibu.

"The object of the poll is not to influence opinion," Hurt said. "We're doing it because we want to assess the issues. We're not saying that this is going to be used for political purposes. We just think it's an excellent tool to gather information.

"Anytime you have a new city, you have to deal with new fees and assessments, and we feel obligated to our employers and shareholders to get as much information about the issue as possible."

However, cityhood backers and others who were contacted by the telephone pollsters, working out of Utah, said the questions in the survey were packed with false information and misleading statements about Malibu incorporation.

Residents were asked to respond to questions on whether they believed traffic congestion would increase if Malibu incorporated and whether they would vote for cityhood if their taxes were increased 5%, 10% and 25%. They were also asked which they would be willing to support to make up the difference in case of a budget deficit: new taxes and fees or increased commercial development.

City Liability

Also included among the nine multiple-choice questions was a query asking respondents whether they would support cityhood if the new city were to become liable for damages and injuries from landslides and fires.

"It's a way of projecting false information," said Mike Caggiano, a member of the Malibu Committee for Incorporation and one of the residents called randomly by pollsters. "The survey is biased in that it assumes things in the questions, such as raising taxes, that have no basis in reality.

"This is the beginning of a campaign to find out the weaknesses that may be exploitable in an anti-cityhood campaign. The budget and the liability questions can be complicated issues and an anti-cityhood campaign would exploit those issues with disinformation."

The public research firm doing the survey is headed by Gary Lawrence, who worked to defeat the Proposition 65 toxics initiative and is well-established in national Republican politics. A steadfast conservative, Lawrence's job in the anti-Proposition 65 campaign was to gather information, interpret it and help plot strategy to use against the pro-toxics initiative forces.

Lawrence could not be reached for comment this week. A worker at the research firm said it was not company policy to discuss research with anyone other than the companies that pay for the surveys.

March Ballot

The cityhood measure probably will be placed on the March ballot, unless Supervisors Pete Schabarum and Deane Dana, who have delayed scheduling a vote in November, change their minds this week. The supervisors must set a public hearing no later than Aug. 11 in order to place the measure on the November ballot.

Hurt declined to say how much Hughes paid for the survey, noting that it's a common practice of the defense contractor to hire pollsters for public policy issues.

However, Walt Keller, co-chairman of the incorporation campaign, questioned the propriety of Hughes' action.

"I don't think it's right for a private firm to interfere in an issue that impacts the whole community," Keller said. "They're going around calling voters in the area and asking them leading questions about cityhood. The questions are very biased."

Caggiano said it's probably a sign of things to come during the campaign.

"It's the kind of thing we'll have to expect," he said. "Unfortunately, there may be between 1,000 and 2,000 people who have been contacted that have this information in the back of their minds and now may believe that their taxes will go up if Malibu incorporates."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World