Guided Vision or Push Poll?

I attended the free guided visioning exercise provided by the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) for the residents of Dulles South on June 8. It was a smoothly run affair. The fact that the PEC, along with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Campaign for Loudoun's Future (CLF) and the Sierra Club, succeeded in providing more facilitators than the number of residents in attendance surely contributed to the ease with which the exercise was conducted.

Unfortunately, the shortcomings may have outweighed any definitive spin that may be placed on the event. Fewer than 80 people were present, of whom more than 20 were connected with the environmental groups sponsoring the event. Another 20 to 30 were connected to development applications in the region. Of the approximately 30 residents participating, a significant percentage were affiliated with spinoff groups of the organizers.

Given the amount of money and effort expended by the sponsors to promote the exercise, it appears as if it was primarily attended by the choir.

The exercise consisted of each individual in a group having his or her answers to five questions recorded, at the conclusion of which each individual was given 15 dot stickers to "vote" on the most important issue noted in each question category.

I cannot testify as to what happened in other groups; mine consisted of a facilitator from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, aided by two recorders from the Sierra Club, seven residents and two observers. Of the residents, one was identified as a member of a subgroup of the Campaign for Loudoun's Future, itself a subgroup of PEC.

One observer, identified as the vice president of planning for the development firm Greenvest, stated that the company owned land in the region for which there is an application in process. Although twice invited to physically sit within the circle, the person sat outside the group and remained silent.

The other observer was identified as a member of the Campaign for Loudoun's Future and, the person stated, as one of the organizers would also simply be observing. However, the person sat within the circle and provided input to the guided questioning.

I note this because of the structure of the meeting: After the first question had been around the circle, and all citizens had confirmed that their opinions had been adequately recorded, the CLF observer pointed to the sheet of responses and asked, "Did anyone mention quality of life?" I found this interesting because observation implies use of the eyes and ears rather than the mouth, and doubly interesting because of the implication that something desired had been omitted by the participants.

A subsequent question elicited single-phrase or one-word answers from the respondents preceding me. I divided my response into two parts, which the recorder accurately transcribed in two concise sentences. The "observer" within the circle then pointed to the sheet again, and stated that the other answers needed to be more detailed. This was not the only time that apparently desired answers were suggested to be expanded or separated into more than one part, while on another question it was suggested that my opinion could be added as a subset of someone else's point.

I came away from the evening with the conclusion that this was a guided push poll.

I want to state for the record that if we conservatively estimate the population of Dulles District at 30,000, the approximately 30 residents who participated are one-tenth of 1 percent of those most directly affected. That cannot be extrapolated into any uniform citizen demand for anything specific, other than perhaps a forlorn hope by a very few that nothing will ever change, yet simultaneously turn backwards and improve.

Barbara Munsey

South Riding