Texas police scrambling as SB4 looms
Councilman Cary Moon on Thursday released data showing a majority of 684 survey participants with Fort Worth addresses opposed the city joining a lawsuit that challenges Senate Bill 4, known as the state’s “sanctuary cities” law.
The survey, conducted in August and carried on Moon’s campaign website, CaryMoon.com, and his social media outlets, asked if the city should join the lawsuit. Data collected by Moon shows 61 percent of those 684 participants voted “no,” while 39 percent voted “yes.”
In a 5-4 vote on Aug. 14, with Moon siding with the majority, the City Council rejected joining the lawsuit. Moon was not required to make the votes public after a Jan. 3 ruling by the attorney general’s office deemed information gathered on a so-called campaign website is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
Moon, who represents District 4, said he decided to publicly release the data because the attorney general’s ruling insured the privacy of the participants, to “show the public sentiment and for transparency.”
The result of the survey came into question when grassroots organization United We Stand, formed to encourage public support for Fort Worth to join Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin and El Paso in the lawsuit, sought the survey results through an open records request.
However, it received only 287 of more than 1,000 total submitted surveys (of which more than 300 were submitted by participants with non-Fort Worth addresses). Of those 287, 210 favored the city joining the litigation.
Those 287 votes were submitted by participants who willingly made their votes public. The survey offered participants the option to keep their votes private, known only to Moon’s office. At the time, Moon said some 700 participants chose that option while claiming a large majority of those private votes were opposed to joining the SB4 lawsuit.
United Fort Worth used the public data to contend that Moon had voted against the will of his constituents. The group and the Star-Telegram filed separate open records requests for the complete results, but were rebuffed by the attorney general’s ruling.
“The survey results released by Councilman Moon were not collected within the city of Fort Worth’s guidelines for record management,” said Mindia Whitter, a United Fort Worth organizer. “We have no assurance of their accuracy. The numbers are inconsistent with citizen feedback to other members of City Council and the mayor, which overwhelmingly favored joining litigation and can be verified through open records.
“All Fort Worth residents should be concerned about a council member obstructing transparency by using campaign resources to conduct official city business. Citizens have a right and responsibility to help ensure accountability of elected officials by monitoring their activity. Having direct, open access to records and data is a cornerstone of democratic governance.”
It is increasingly common for politicians to use so-called campaign websites to solicit surveys, including Gov. Greg Abbott and President Donald Trump. The surveys are not deemed scientific because they are voluntary and are not monitored to ensure that participants don’t submit multiple surveys to tilt the results.
“I don’t think my past surveys have encouraged that type of misuse,” Moon said.
Thomas R. Marshall, political science professor at UT Arlington, said such surveys are commonly used to solicit views, connect with constituents and build email databases of potential supporters and donors. But he cautioned using them as an accurate read of voter sentiment. He refers to such surveys as “junk surveys.”
“Unless he claimed that’s the reason he voted that way, generally what you have is a junk survey,” Marshall said.
Moon, however, acknowledges he views the surveys — and he’s conducted others on issues such as transportation, panhandling and zoning cases — as being “one component” in his decision-making process. He said he doesn’t take them as gospel, but believes they are more accurate than not.
Associate dean of TCU’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication, Chip Stewart, an attorney who teaches courses in media law, believes the results of those surveys should fall under the Public Information Act if the information is being used as a decision-making tool.
“So the question really is, are Moon’s surveys a private campaign matter, or is he using them as part of his official conduct as a city councilman?” Stewart said. “If they are part of his official capacity as councilman, used to help him make decisions, then they should be public record. If he’s just gathering info for his campaign, then he could make the argument that by the letter of the law, they are private.”
Moon said Thursday that he is willing to publicly release all results of future surveys now that he knows he can keep the names of participants private.
“Absolutely,” Moon said.