The call came on a Monday evening, while Ben Ross was reading a book in the den of his Bethesda home. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources was doing a survey and wanted a few moments of his time.
Ross complied, spending roughly 20 minutes answering questions about the Chesapeake Bay. But when the questioner asked which candidate he voted for in the 2004 presidential election and how a candidate's position on environmental matters might influence his vote, he wondered if something was amiss.
"Why was the state government conducting a political poll?" he recalled thinking. "Frankly, I was shocked."
The $20,000 opinion survey was not paid for by the state, but by an Annapolis-based group working closely with Maryland officials on Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. The phone surveyor's confusion is easily understood, because Department of Natural Resources officials selected the polling firm and worked closely with the nonprofit group -- the Oyster Recovery Partnership -- to prepare the 150 questions.
State officials and the chairman of the Oyster Recovery Partnership said yesterday that the phone survey, which was conducted last month and has not been tabulated, is intended to help shape any joint ventures they undertake.
"We're not here trying to promote anyone's cause, other than bay restoration," said Dale Wright, who chairs the group.
Wright said the survey was the idea of Charlie Frentz, the group's executive director. Frentz could not be reached for comment yesterday. He was on an Alaskan fly fishing vacation with Department of Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks and Charlie Evans, the department's director of development, according to Wright.
Other board members of the Oyster Recovery Partnership said they did not know their group was sponsoring the poll until they received a reporter's call about it.
"My sense of this, just from what I've learned today, was that this was entirely developed by DNR and that our people had nothing to do with developing the questions," said Bill Goldsborough, a member of the group's executive committee, who is also a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Goldsborough said he was surprised to see the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which he regarded to be apolitical, financing a survey that appeared in part to be gauging public support for environmental initiatives championed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
A hefty portion of the survey is devoted to the question of whether to introduce Asian oysters into the bay, a plan Ehrlich has backed strongly, but always on the condition that scientists conclude that it would be safe.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) wondered why state officials would be polling the public on a question that "should be answered based on what's best for the bay, not on the whim and caprice of what the population thinks at any given time."
The poll surfaced at a time of partisan tension in Annapolis, with Ehrlich accusing Democrats of orchestrating a campaign to smear him and Democrats accusing the governor of politicizing the state bureaucracy.
"There's no reason to ask about people's voting patterns unless they're planning to put this information to some political use," state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said.
Stephan Abel, a Natural Resources spokesman, said the survey was in no way designed to gather political information for the governor. It was intended to be a tool for determining how best to raise money for bay restoration and how to set priorities for future ventures, he said.
"Understanding what the public thinks is important," Abel said. "It provides a bench mark."
Abel said questions about voting habits were inserted not by Natural Resources officials but by the company that conducted the survey, Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Va.
Keith Haller, president of the public research firm Potomac Inc., which has done independent polling for media outlets, said demographic needs might justify asking for party affiliation but would not justify asking: "How much influence do candidates' environmental policies or views have on your actual voting behavior?"
"When you get into political influences and voting behavior, you put your campaign hat on," Haller said.