The leaders of the Berrywood Community Association thought they knew their Anne Arundel County waterfront community pretty well. So when somebody suggested to the board of directors this year that a polling organization survey the 250 families there, some people did not see the point.
"We are a small community," said association President Jim Bickley, who opposed the idea. "We like to think we know what the needs are." But the poll went ahead. Residents were asked more than 100 questions on subjects such as playground funding, dues collection and repairs to the clubhouse.
Bickley, realizing for the first time that most residents want earnings from the community-owned marina to be used only for marina upkeep, is now praising the idea of a local poll. He predicted that the survey will become a "blueprint" for decisions by the association. "I'd urge everybody to have one," he said.
The survey was conducted by the Center for the Study of Local Issues, a small polling organization (it employs one part-time secretary) at Anne Arundel Community College. For the past seven years, while big polling organizations have been following the swaying moods and beliefs of the nation, the center has been keeping a watchful eye on things back home.
"We are committed to the local level," said Stephen F. Steele, a sociology teacher at the college and director of the center.
The center was started, he said, when sociologists at the community college started thinking about how little people knew about what the community thought -- that people had a clearer idea of national thinking on national issues.
"Community colleges are really outposts in the community," Steele said. And with faculty trained in research techniques, students who live and work in the county, and computers available on campus, Steele said, the college had everything it needed to begin a polling operation.
"We are providing information that nobody else has," Steele said. "And it's inexpensive." He added that student volunteers and interns "are learning a real, marketable skill."
Twice a year, the center surveys county residents for information on their political and economic views, and whatever else they believe is relevant. The center conducts two surveys a year on economic and political issues, and it does surveys under contract to private organizations and government.
The center operates with a part-time secretary as its only paid staff, and uses college faculty and students and seven student interns. The starting cost for a full countywide survey runs between $1,500 and $2,000, but analysis and a written report cost extra, Steele said. In some surveys, organizations can "buy" a question for between $50 and $150.
The service has been used by the county government and county police, as well as newspapers and community organizations, to research subjects ranging from people's attitudes toward mental illness to the likelihood of voters approving a county charter amendment. Banks, Girl Scouts and an assortment of individuals and churches have been among those buying the results of polls already completed.
Harold J. Counihan, chairman of the college's department of social sciences, predicts that more community colleges will set up polling operations to study local issues. Polls, unlike books and magazines, are truly the measure of what the common person thinks, he said, and polls fit in well with the community college mission of providing for the entire community.