Thursday, February 26, 2009

One Poll, a Good One, please

The town board is debating the best approach for integrating a community survey component into the process of developing our new town master plan. The town has hired a team of consultants to construct the updated plan in consultation with the public. Thus far, qualitative focus groups and a community forum have been held. The consultants are also planning to field a mail survey in order to include a quantitative, scientifically selected sample of the town populace.

Councilwoman Kitty Brown is concerned that the mail survey will not incorporate enough of the public and would like a companion survey to be published in the New Paltz Times. Councilman Jeff Logan and Supervisor Toni Hokanson were open to the idea and the board has decided , while not supportive, agreed to ask the consultants if this is feasible.

While I admire Kitty Brown’s desire to broaden inclusion, in this instance, as a rigid methodologist when it comes to survey research*, I have to advise the town to not take this approach. In order for the science of the mail survey to be sound, the first and only exposure to the questions needs to happen when people receive them in the mail. It needs to be an independent, stand alone document, one that is especially not embedded within a newspaper that is currently reporting on the issues it addresses. The intent of including a survey in the project was to provide a scientifically valid sample of the town residents and offering the survey via the newspaper diminishes the validity of the mail survey’s results.

That said, I also have some serious concerns about the mail survey methodology. Done well, random sampling methods include contact with a small number of people, the results of which can represent the entire population under study. The answers obtained from a scientific probability survey are not just answers from those individuals who responded but more importantly, because of the design and methods by which the data is collected, can be used to generalize to the population as a whole. We want a methodology that ensures results are an estimate of what would have been obtained if all adults in the New Paltz were interviewed.

Firms typically chose to use mail surveys over telephone surveys because of the significant difference in cost. (A sound telephone survey would cut into at least half the budget of this entire project.) But, the trade off for lower cost is that mail surveys have notoriously low response rates, making the case for representativeness a tough sell. The consultants estimate a return rate of 8% after mailing out the survey to 1000 randomly selected households. How do we know the responses of these 80 residents represent the views of all New Paltzians? We can’t know, the response rate is too low and the sample size too small to justify the science of random sampling. (Which btw, assumes 100% response rate, but lower rates have proven sufficient, just not that low). My advice is to mail out more surveys, possibly staggered in waves of 500 over time, in order to generate 300 interviews with a margin of error of +/- 6%.

Then what? Population parameters provided by the U.S. Census can be compared to the demographics of the survey sample to ensure representativeness. If it is close but not quite close enough, a statistical process called weighting can be employed, but this should only be done if guided by strict rules… in lay people’s terms, it should only “tweak” the data, not stretch the truth, so to speak. In the end, when we review the data, we must ask: do the demographics reflect our population, as we know New Paltz to be, based on census data? 82% white, 48% college educated, 54% homeowners, 28% households with children? If the composition of the resulting sample is similar to the make up of our community based on census data, we can be confident the survey yielded information that can be generalized to the entire population of New Paltz.


* My M.S. degree is in Social Research and just last year, after eleven years, I left my job as Assistant Director at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion

Sunday, February 22, 2009

“They Don’t Vote”

I have written before about my Democrat dilemma, regarding how conflicted I am with my party registration and the lack of progressive politics in this town despite a Democratic monopoly in our elected leadership. Another chapter has been added to this saga.

“They don’t vote” is the response I received from a few of our elected leaders (Democrats, of course) when I questioned the Democratic Committee’s proposed plan to hold the town caucus in June this year when many college students are likely to be out of town and will be deprived of an opportunity to participate. Up for grabs are Town Supervisor, two board seats, and the highway superintendent job. The state board of elections sets the schedule as to when a caucus or primary can be held, typically the earliest day is in June. New York State and New York City both hold their primaries in September.

Call me crazy but systematic disenfranchisement of a significant portion of the electorate is not cool. There are other demographic groups who are not here all year. We have many senior citizens who spend quite a bit of the year down south. I know a couple people who work here at the college weekdays but are in the city with spouses or significant others on the weekends. Are days of residence a requirement for voting? College students, or anyone for that matter, are allowed to register at their New Paltz address if: they are a U.S. citizen, are 18 years old, live at their present address at least thirty days, are not in jail, and do not claim the right to vote anywhere else. Would the committee dare hold the caucus in the summer when families are away on vacation or in the winter when the seniors are gone? I don’t think so.

Good governments set election dates at a time when it can be reasonably sure that the entire electorate is available to vote. This is why many countries hold their elections on weekends, or they make it a required holiday, always, not just on presidential years. In 2001, the village voted to move their elections to May, avoiding an unsuccessful attempt to move them from March to June. (Smile about the gadfly in this New Paltz Times article about student’s influence on New Paltz politics.) Two college students ran for village board last year, meaning we would have a college student on the village board right now if Pete Healey had not decided to run, so don’t tell me college students aren’t paying attention, they are participating already.

Another compelling reason for later primaries or caucuses is our leaders can stay focused on governing, not on getting re-elected. Shorter campaign seasons mean incumbents are not concentrating on/distracted by campaigning for as long a period of time.

However, and this really perplexes me because of who is advocating for the early caucus, there is an incumbents’ advantage to a late caucus. Independent nominating petitions can be sought five weeks after the start date for a petition or caucus of a major party. By holding a caucus before the independent petitions are filed, which would be sometime mid-August if the caucus is in June, the party opens themselves up to attack. By waiting, the party gets their candidates, and due to the proximity to the general election, that is pretty much the end of it. By holding the caucus earlier, if there are disgruntled losers, be they Democrats or unaffiliated candidates who tried to get nominations and failed to do so, there is still time to get an independent line and mount a major campaign against the Democrats by using the whole five-week petitioning period as an early campaign.

Holding the caucus in June is a strange risk to take after last year’s filing fiasco which resulted in a write-in campaign where the candidate that got the nod, but not his name on the ballot, very nearly lost. Maybe it is concern that holding a September caucus leaves a deadline for filing that is awfully close? This should not be a problem with a competent filer.

Despite my thoughts that shaking things up with the party with a viable independent attack sounds perhaps just what this town needs, I can not get past the disenfranchisement of the college students. Bottom line, I can not be party to (don’t pardon the pun) a timeline that ensures the students who are here ten months out of the year, but chose to go home or away in the summer, can’t vote. To say “They don’t vote”, is what sociologists call blaming the victim. The onus is on the leadership to set up a system where all voters have the opportunity to vote and are incentivized to participate. Neither occurs with a June caucus.

The discussion about the timing of the caucus occurred at the last Democratic committee meeting, which I was unable to attend. Lesson learned: the gadfly can't miss these meetings! But the gadfly’s plate is quite full… so, please, if you are a registered Democrat and feel the caucus should be held when we can be reasonably sure the electorate is in town, start coming to the meetings which are now being held twice a month, the first Monday and second Thursday at Village Hall. We need more gadflies!


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Get Your Free Hybrid School Bus Here!

With all the bean-counting school budget prep and the fight over seven percent, I'm sure a lot of us are mindful of ways to help the district get a leg up. Today I saw a brief in New York Teacher about an essay competition with a hybrid bus as the grand prize. The $5,000 scholarship may just motivate a few of our talented local students, at least if the $3,000 school supply award convinces teachers to spread the word.

I figure it can't hurt. Please tell your local educators to get those essays going!

I apologize for not making this easy, but please share this post on Facebook as well. Many kids use it, and if they like the idea word will get around lickety-split.

Yes, I said lickety-split.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Due to state budget woes, the school budget process schedule will be much earlier this year. Last Wednesday (February 4), Superintendent Rice presented her draft budget at the board of education meeting. The summary and power point are now posted on the district website.

The proposed increase in the tax levy is 6.99%. Some board members (in particular, Don Kerr and Patrick Rausch) reacted that in order to get the tax levy down to 5%, the budget would need further cuts and/or the district would need to generate more revenues. Steve Greenfield noted that while 7% is not a low figure, in comparison, many districts in the region are now considering double digit increases and we need to remember we are dealing with public education, not a consumption budget (e.g. the district can’t stop going the movies and out to dinner, like a household can). Rod Dressel pointed out, it is also very important to note that the increased levy is primarily a result of less money coming from the state, not more spending in the district.

This coming Wednesday, Feb 11, the board will continue their discussion of the budget. (Reminder: this is the same night as the Middle School renovation study presentation.) On February 25, the board is seeking public input and will host a community forum at the high school. Maria Rice will submit her revised budget on March 4.

In terms of cuts, there is one in particular I would argue against: the $7,000 allotted to the food services line which is/was meant to facilitate progression towards healthier foods served to the children in our schools. While $7K is not chump change, in a 48 million dollar budget, it is somewhat symbolic… and its retraction is very indicative of a lack of commitment to providing better food in our schools.

Areas where I would like to see more cuts are in administrative lines… I am sure we could unearth at least $7K in the board of education ($105K) and superintendent ($264K) lines.

As far as revenues, one of my biggest concerns is the proposal to start charging building use fees to non-school groups that use school facilities after 6pm on weekdays and on the weekends. *I believe* it was stated that these fees will be $30-45 per hour (it is not in the power point…). This could have a major impact on civic and sport activities in New Paltz and I am very concerned about the ripple effects this will have on the community.

These are just a few of the things that popped out at me upon my first perusal of the draft budget. I urge anyone concerned about the tax levy and the delivery of public education in New Paltz to take a look, and to then show up on February 25 for the community forum. The superintendent and school board have asked for our input – about spending cuts and revenue generation – and we need to take them up on their offer to listen to us.

(ps. Check out the file name of the power point. Very funny.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

One Week... Three Important Meetings

In the next week there are three VERY important events for New Paltz town/village/school district residents to attend.

Two involve the schools:

what: Superintendent Unveiling Early Draft of 09-10 School District Budget
when: Wednesday, February 4th, 7pm
where: High School Audion

what: Middle School Renovation Feasibility Study Presentation
when: Wednesday, February 11th, 7pm
where: High School Audion

more info at:

One has to do with the Town Master Plan:

what: New Paltz Comprehensive Plan Public Workshop
when: Saturday, February 7th, 10am-12pm
where: SUNY New Paltz Student Union, Multi-purpose Room

more info at: and...

and if you are home right now and it is before 7pm on Monday, February 2nd... go check out the Martin Luther King Jr Day Celebration at SUNY New Paltz, Lecture Center 102

more info here:

So many meetings, so little time! The fun never ends!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

NPT drags Mullergate into the light of day

I've been so preoccupied by trying to give myself a heart attack these past few days that I haven't had a chance to comment on recent developments (pun intentional) in the Mullergate affair.

In one of the many New Paltz Times articles which are never made available online, Erin Quinn dug deeply into the question of what happened to Peter Muller's Town Planning Board membership.  She calls Deputy Supervisor Jane Ann Williams on the carpet for first confirming in writing that he wasn't reappointed, and then backpedaling when Rachel Lagodka asked about it at the joint Town/Village meeting.  Williams' position in writing was that "there is a question as to whether or not" Muller filed his training hours.  Toni Hokanson echoed her passively-voiced language.

Here's an idea:  if you want Peter on the board, reappoint him.  If you think the man, who spent much of last year recovering from hip replacement, didn't file the little document indicating his training, give him a call.  Fill out the damned form yourself and drive it to his house for his signature.

Claims that nobody knew why Peter's name came off the town website shouldn't be mystifying.  Paul Brown sent Peter a letter telling him he hadn't been reappointed, and then likely directed the Planning Board secretary to remove his name.  Paul Brown is amazingly efficient and organized.  If he wrote a letter to Peter, he removed the name.  And if Paul Brown removed Peter Muller's name, it was because he wasn't reappointed - Mr. Brown's shortcomings do not include inattention to detail.

There was an attempt to publicly reappoint him that was thwarted by a parliamentary move.  Jeff Logan got his first taste of how government really works when he seconded Kitty Brown's motion but couldn't vote on it because the rest of the board wanted to skulk into executive session to lick their wounds.

The Town Board can appoint whomever they please to the Planning Board, within some limits.  Yes, I would prefer Peter to some other person, but my problem here is with the back room politics.  Have an open vote, and be ready to justify your actions.  This is a democracy, and the people that you represent have the right to know what you're doing and why.  The very fact that investigative reporting caused Peter's documented removal from the Board and the web site to mysteriously undo itself is evidence of politicians that don't believe in open government.  

Three out of five failed this test in honesty and forthrightness.  There have been so many midterm appointments (a technique used to allow the preferred candidate run as an incumbent) these past few years that I can't remember whose terms are up this year, but can we get some ethical people on the board to replace them, please?