Almanac

News - January 20, 2010

Bohannon polling effort raises some alarm on council

by Sean Howell

A polling effort by land developer David Bohannon has elicited "grave concern" from some Menlo Park city officials, and little more than a shrug from others.

Questions about what Mr. Bohannon is trying to accomplish in a second round of public opinion polling — and about what impact, if any, the poll will have on continuing closed-door negotiations over a million-square-foot office/hotel complex proposed by his development company — were the subject of about 45 minutes of discussion at the City Council's Jan. 12 meeting.

In an interview, Mr. Bohannon portrayed the effort, featuring phone surveys and focus groups, as an extension of an earlier survey on his project. He said he wants to "talk to people directly" about new issues that have been raised, specifically regarding the project's greenhouse gas emissions.

A handful of residents, most prominently former council member Paul Collacchi, have pressed the council to force Mr. Bohannon's company to offset the project's emissions — a view that seems to have gained traction among some council members.

Mr. Bohannon said he is also trying to prepare for the possibility of a referendum.

Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson and Councilman Andy Cohen, who constitute the council's subcommittee on the project, said they met with Mr. Bohannon Jan. 12 to express "grave concern" about the most recent polling effort. Ms. Fergusson said she worries that Mr. Bohannon will use the results of the poll to exert pressure on the City Council, or that he will use them to determine whether he wants to circumvent the council altogether and take the proposal directly to voters in a ballot initiative.

"These activities really could be used to undermine the negotiations," Ms. Fergusson said. "This kind of information could be used to go around the council, and it could be used to apply pressure to us to compromise in a way that we feel is not in the best interests of Menlo Park."

Asked in an interview if he wanted to respond, Mr. Bohannon said, "Not really. ... I thought the other council members did a good job of dealing with it."

Noting that the council receives plenty of petitions — business interests who oppose plans for a revamped downtown have informally polled hundreds of people over the past few months, for example — Councilman John Boyle asked why this one seemed exceptional. Mayor Rich Cline said he would expect any business to try to control the conversation around such a proposal.

Still, the fact that the poll is being conducted in the midst of the negotiations didn't sit well with Ms. Fergusson and Mr. Cohen. Given the scope of Mr. Bohannon's outreach efforts, Mr. Cohen suggested that the city conduct its own poll.

Mr. Bohannon maintained that a ballot initiative is not in his plans, at least not at the moment. Morris Brown, who led a 2006 referendum campaign that Mr. Bohannon says provided much of the impetus for the poll, said he has no intention of waging another such campaign.

But the possibility that the issue would be decided by popular vote hung over the council discussion. Mr. Boyle said the city would be well-positioned to defeat an initiative, in the unlikely event that Mr. Bohannon launches one.

"You're thinking we could win such a campaign?" Ms. Fergusson asked.

"I'm thinking, if we can't, we should be embarrassed," Mr. Boyle replied.

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