Xcel: Survey designed to gauge public opinion, not sway it
By Heath Urie, Camera Staff Writer
Posted: 06/20/2011 03:24:11 PM MDT

Xcel Energy sponsored a weekend telephone survey of Boulder residents that some participants and elected leaders are worried contained misleading information about the city’s “Energy Future” campaign.

But officials with Xcel said the survey was fair, and that the utility is using the information for internal research rather than trying to sway public opinion ahead of the November election.

City Manager Jane Brautigam alerted members of the City Council on Friday that Craig Eicher, Xcel’s area manager for the Boulder region, called her to say the company would reach out to likely Boulder voters over the weekend to “determine attitudes about the franchise (between Boulder and Xcel) and energy issues.”

According to several people who took the 20-minute survey — conducted by Oregon-based RDD Field Services — the utility asked a series of questions about energy issues, satisfaction with Boulder’s government and the city’s efforts to possibly leave its longtime partnership with Xcel in favor of more local control.

Some residents who got the call said that it felt more like a “push poll” than an opinion survey, and that it intentionally skewed questions in favor of Xcel.

“I definitely felt like there was a slant to the questions, towards Xcel,” said Boulder resident Amie Durden, who received one of the calls. “I’m not all that happy with how upper management in the city or the council handle things, but I didn’t appreciate what felt like an attempt to make Xcel the good guy and Boulder the bad guy.”

Durden said she’s still undecided on how she would vote on a ballot measure seeking to municipalize Boulder’s electric infrastructure, but the poll may have made her “trust Xcel less.”

The level of public trust in either Xcel or the city government could be critical this November, as the City Council continues to debate what to put on the ballot. The options so far include a renewed franchise agreement with Xcel that includes additional wind power, or purchasing the electricity infrastructure from Xcel and becoming a locally controlled utility.

Driving jobs about of Boulder

According to several people who took the survey, one of the questions stated that electric rates under city control could increasingly burden commercial users and local customers, and drive jobs out of the city — and asked whether those were good reasons to oppose the city’s municipalization efforts.

That question in particular upset City Councilwoman Crystal Gray — who did not receive a call but heard about it from concerned citizens — because the city’s consultants have estimated that Boulder could offer electricity rates that are competitive with Xcel’s.

“It appears to me that Xcel is testing messages for a political campaign before all the facts are in, and, in fact, before Xcel has even revealed to the public the details of their plan,” Gray said in a e-mail to the Camera.

Gray also called the poll’s assumption that a municipal utility would drive jobs out of Boulder an outright “fabrication.”

Neal Lurie, executive director of the Boulder-based Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, also received a call from the survey takers over the weekend. He said local control over utilities could actually lead to more jobs, not fewer.

“Xcel’s administration of the solar rewards program has led to significant job losses and industry destabilization,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind that the city of Boulder would be much more committed to being able to promote economic development in renewable energy.”

‘You want to push buttons’

Another question, according to survey participants, stated that the cost of repaying the hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds that would be needed to purchase the infrastructure from Xcel would represent a financial hardship on everyone in the community, especially seniors and low-income households.

Boulder’s plan for becoming a utility includes lower rates specifically for low-income households.

Michelle Aguayo, a spokeswoman for Xcel, said the company formed that question and others based on what it believes would happen if Boulder becomes its own utility.

“It very well could be a valid question,” she said, given the city’s proposal to issue hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to pay for the utility.

Aguayo said the poll was intentionally designed to spark strong feelings from participants — but not to sway them.

“What you want to do in any sort of poll is you want to push buttons — you want to get an emotional response,” she said. “Any good poll will do that.”

Aguayo declined to release the questions from the survey or reveal the results. But she said the survey was fair and that it presented questions that were “pro-municipalization.”

Boulder resident Steve Levin, who supports staying with Xcel, said the company did a good job with the questions.

“It presented arguments from both sides that I thought were well thought out,” he said, adding that he believes Boulder is “heading down the wrong path” by pursuing municipalization.

Testing the waters

Floyd Ciruli, owner of the Denver-based Ciruli Associates polling and consulting firm, said he thinks the survey questions were designed to help Xcel test the waters for a possible political campaign this fall.

“A lot of polling… helps them figure out what should be the best arguments” for or against a ballot measure, Ciruli said.

A traditional push poll, he said, would have been shorter and would have featured a stronger message. Opinion polls are common for large companies such as Xcel to conduct prior to elections, he added.

‘It is not an easy task’

Xcel isn’t the only one looking to benefit from early public opinion. The city of Boulder is preparing its own phone survey that will take place next month.

Sarah Huntley, a city spokeswoman, said officials would work to make sure that “assumptions are stripped out of the questions” so the city can get accurate information about voter opinions.

The city’s survey, she said, likely would include questions about Xcel’s plan to purchase bulk wind power, the city’s plans for becoming a municipal utility and whether voters would support an increased tax to pay for the needed legal and engineering fees should Boulder leave Xcel.

“We want really good data to give to council,” Huntley said. “It doesn’t serve anybody to have the questions slanted or biased. It is not an easy task, especially on an issue that’s as complicated as this.”

Richard Rood, a Boulder resident and professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at the University of Michigan, said he came away from the phone survey with a more intense desire to learn about Boulder’s energy options.

“I came out more strongly committed to thinking it’s worth Boulder exploring this idea” of municipalization, he said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or urieh@dailycamera.com

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