One time a few years ago, I was inside the Downtown Public Library in Baton Rouge, the building Mayor Kip Holden and the downtown clique, along with the “in-crowd” in Baton Rouge which never quite seems in sync with the rest of the city, wants to spend $20 million tearing down and rebuilding.
I had jury duty, you see. And for two days while I had to wait for a bunch of lawyers to decide they didn’t need me at the courthouse, I got stashed at the library. Read a whole Elmore Leonard book in there.
And like all libraries, it was nice and quiet among the stacks. Pretty empty, too. After all, nobody was in there but those of us the jury coordinators put in that library and the folks whose job it was to stay there from 9 to 5. But I didn’t complain. The building was ugly as sin, mind you, but not falling down. And compared to the science project of a governmental building next door, which looks like it was designed by a bunch of eight-year olds with Legos, the current downtown library isn’t all that bad.
So for most of us, the idea that $20 million has to vanish into thin air so the current library can be demolished and replaced with another empty facility is an asinine waste of money. That’s the exact result of a poll my friend John Couvillon conducted for the Baton Rouge Tea Party a few weeks ago, which found that 61 percent of respondents in East Baton Rouge Parish disagree with the idea of tearing down the library and building a new one in its place.
But the new downtown library idea has its backers. And while only 19 percent of the people John surveyed actually want to spend $20 million on a reading room for folks on jury duty, that number includes the folks in the “in-crowd” who always have some ideas on how to spend your money.
As it happens, the “in-crowd” includes Baton Rouge Business Report publisher Rolfe McCollister and his staff. And John is finding himself getting all kinds of negative publicity from them for having done that poll.
McCollister fired a broadside across John’s bow in a column back in November which made the ludicrous case that a 2005 vote to renew a library tax somehow precluded an effort to fight the $20 million project, since “the voters already decided this issue.” After a series of non-sequitur arguments which leave out any real discussion of the merits of this particular case, McCollister then decided to make John famous…
Now the Tea Party says it has a “poll” by some JMC Enterprises, which I have never heard of and which supposedly used land line phones to call. [Who even answers a land line phone these days, with caller I.D. and cell phones?] The voters have already spoken.
John answered McCollister’s disrespectful and rude shot with a piece, an excerpt of which appeared here, which painstakingly described the methods and results of the poll without descending into the same rudeness and disrespect McCollister showed him. John didn’t mention, as I sure would have had I been in his place, that he was the pollster for the Baton Rouge Tea Party’s successful effort in 2009 to crush the $900 million bond issue McCollister and the rest of the “in-crowd” had endorsed despite manifest deficiencies of that proposal. Despite McCollister’s advocacy in favor of that plan and a similar endorsement by the Baton Rouge Advocate, the bond issue was blown out 65-35 by voters in East Baton Rouge.
You’d think after taking a mauling like that McCollister might ask himself “who are those guys?” and endeavor to at least familiarize himself with the identity of the folks who had made him look like a dunce, but it seems he didn’t bother.
And he certainly didn’t learn much from that bond issue. McCollister, it seems, was happy to be out of touch with the majority of the people in East Baton Rouge Parish then, and he’s still out of touch with the majority now.
But he’s not out of touch with everybody.
Because regardless of what Joe Schmo might think, there are oodles of law firms, architects and construction companies who do quite well getting work on city contracts like the one for the new downtown library. Those guys were big supporters of Holden’s election and re-election. They’re always around when the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which is largely funded out of the mayor’s office, decides to engage on the issues of the day. And as it happens, they seem quite happy to populate the exhorbitantly expensive ad spaces of the Baton Rouge Business Report – which never seems to find a “public-private partnership” (aka “boondoggle”) it can’t support.
It’s a nice little daisy chain, you see. And McCollister has built himself a nice setup participating in it. I can’t blame him for that, nor can I blame those other companies for their role in the constant barrage of tax-and-spend efforts. Those guys are scraping for work since the private economy in town doesn’t show much demand for $20 million construction projects. I offer as evidence the story of somebody else McCollister probably never bothered to find out about – Jennifer Madsen, who was a young architect at one of those firms when the bond issue came up. Madsen, in her role with the Baton Rouge Tea Party (she later became its president), opposed the bond issue – and was dismissed from her job as a result. Can’t blame the firm, even though it was a lousy thing to do. They needed the work that $900 million would provide an opportunity to bid on, and here she was trying to stop the gravy train.
But when the public doesn’t want to drive your gravy train, you start to be a bad guy when you seek recriminations against the people standing in your way. And that’s why the second shot the Business Report has fired at Couvillon is gratuitous and disgusting.
The current hit piece, written this time by staff writer Stephanie Riegel, basically trashes John’s business and makes him out to be a charlatan. A few highlights:
For starters, JMC Enterprises has close ties to the Baton Rouge Tea Party, which paid for the survey and made no bones about its opposition to a new downtown library. That doesn’t mean the firm conducted its poll with bias, but it does make you wonder what other groups or companies it has worked for and how it goes about asking questions.
So? All pollsters are hired by clients with agendas. Polls cost money. People who spend money on polls have an interest in finding out what public opinion is on questions they care about. That includes the Baton Rouge Tea Party. Riegel isn’t so naive or ignorant to think the Poll Fairy is paying for surveys like John does, is she?
The firm is less than two years old and relatively inexperienced, but JMC Enterprises President John Couvillion says he’s no newcomer to politics. He has hung around local Republican Party circles for several years, he says, specifically conducting tracking polls for Woody Jenkins. Last year, the firm was hired by the Baton Rouge Tea Party for a poll on Mayor Kip Holden’s bond issue, opposition of which became one of the anti-tax group’s rallying cries.
That might have put JMC Enterprises on the map in the minds of the local Tea Party supporters, but the firm is still unknown in most political circles, and its low-budget website does little to inspire confidence. More questionable is that the firm is not registered as a pollster with the secretary of state’s office, as required by law.
Riegel didn’t mention that John also did polling for at least three Congressional candidates in the latest cycle; apparently he’s not as unknown as people in the “political circles” she travels in think he is. As for John’s website being a “low-budget” operation, Riegel obviously doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about; lots of pollsters use WordPress or Blogspot to deliver their updates just like John does. That Gallup and Rasmussen don’t is apparently what bothers Riegel; perhaps she can explain why she thinks Gallup or Rasmussen would bother to poll a $20 million library proposal in Baton Rouge.
And then there’s this…
As for its methodology on the library poll, JMC Enterprises used electronic dialing to contact on landlines 10,000 so-called likely voters in East Baton Rouge Parish, which Couvillion says included people who had voted at least once since the 2008 presidential election. Of those people who were contacted, 826 responded.
There’s nothing wrong with using landlines or even electronic call systems per se, but they are less effective and less accurate than scientific, automated methods. A bigger problem is that—by Couvillion’ s own admission—his poll underrepresented black voters and overrepresented white ones. Couvillion says he accounted for the difference by weighing the response of black voters more heavily. We’ll have to take his word for it, but it’s not exactly the best way to take the pulse of parish voters.
Then there’s the way the question was worded. JMC Enterprises prefaced it by saying, “The Metro Council is about to vote on a Library Board request to demolish and rebuild the River Center Branch Library, at twice the current size and at a cost of $22 million dollars.”
That’s not the most objective way to preface a question about a complex and controversial issue, and it’s not even factually correct. Perhaps that’s why the Metro Council didn’t take the results of the poll too seriously when making its decision. It’s unfortunate the local media didn’t exercise the same judgment when reporting on it.
Again, Couvillon’s poll found a 61-19 spread against the library project. It also weighed the results based on race, which really didn’t matter because black voters think the library project sucks just like white voters do. As for her opinion of what’s the “best way to take the pulse of parish voters,” I guess we’re supposed to take her word for what that is despite the fact she has no pedigree whatsoever as a pollster.
And there’s nothing wrong with how the question was worded. The Metro Council did vote to demolish and replace the River Center Branch Library. The new library is envisioned at roughly twice the size. And from a public opinion standpoint, it’s not significant whether the price is $20 million or $22 million.
This blatant smear disguised as journalism calls into question whether anybody should care what the Business Report says anymore. It’s ugly, it’s deceitful and it’s designed to make you feel good about somebody profiting off your tax dollars. Good thing the Business Report has a relatively small readership; Compete.com says they’re less than twice the size of this site’s traffic and falling. Otherwise John might have reason to worry about McCollister’s vendetta against him.
Nobody uses the current downtown library, and nobody will use the new one either. Outside of folks on jury duty. For finding out that three-fifths of the voters in Baton Rouge recognize this, John earned the invective of the “business” publication in Baton Rouge. In slinging his dirt, McCollister has told us a lot more about himself than he ever could have said about John.