There isn’t a person in Claremont who doesn’t have an opinion about the city’s attempt to acquire the water system from Golden State Water Company. There are, however, only nine who were paid for those opinions.
What remains unclear is, who was footing the bill?
Nichols Research, located in Sunnyvale, California, specializes in data collection methodologies including phone interviewing, in-person intercepts, qualitative recruiting and focus groups. Last week, the research company began recruiting Claremont residents by phone to invite them to participate in a research study.
John Doe, who requested anonymity, was one such resident.
“They invited me to participate in a research study about local and political issues and they were going to pay me $200 do it,” says Mr. Doe.
After a short conversation, Christopher agreed to participate and received an email confirmation from Nichols Research with details of time and place surrounding the study. Also included was the promise of a $200 honorarium as a “thank you” for his time and opinions, a common practice.
As instructed, Mr. Doe arrived at the Sheraton in Ontario shortly after 2 p.m. on August 21 and took his seat in a conference room next to the other panelists. The group got to talking and discovered that not only were they all residents of Claremont, but that their friends and family members had been contacted by the research company to participate in the study as well. Moments later, a monitor with Nichols Research entered the room , introduced himself and explained how the study would unfold.
“He told us we’d be going into another room where we would be recorded and to keep our nameplates in place so they could be picked up by the camera. They record these things to look at the context afterwards.”
With that said, the group was escorted to a second room where they each took their assigned seat. The monitor shared with the panelists that they would be discussing state and local issues that are very important at the moment. Specifically, the conversation would address initiatives on the state water issue, the Claremont water bond measure and the repeal of a city tax on water in Claremont.
The monitor then went around the table and asked a series of questions.
“Do you think three to four years is reasonable for Claremont to take over the water system?”
“Do you think paying $135 million for the water system is reasonable?”
“Don’t you think this is a bad idea?”
“Do you have any problems with your water or the service or the taste, or is it just about cost?”
The skewed questions raised a red flag for Mr. Doe.
“The way the monitor phrased the questions was very telling,” he says. “He asked, ‘Do people understand this is a long process and it’s not going to happen overnight?’ And I’m thinking, this is Claremont, where everyone is highly educated and knowledgeable about what’s going on in town. We know exactly what we’re getting into.”
The discussion progressed, with the monitor asking the panelists why they wanted the purchase of the water company from Golden State to happen. For Mr. Doe, the answer was an easy one.
“Because we’re being screwed,” he said. “Surrounding cities are half the price. If you reduce your water consumption, you get a surcharge for conserving. There are many reasons why, because Golden State hasn’t upheld their part of the deal.”
According to Mr. Doe, seven of the nine panelists were in favor of the city’s efforts to take over the water system from Golden State. The two remaining panelists were undecided, piquing the interest of the monitor, and were asked to stay to continue the study.
The seven in favor were paid $200 in cash and dismissed just 40 minutes into what was to be a two-hour study.
“We all met up outside and said, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve been had!’” Mr. Doe says, “This is vote-buying. This is getting people in a room to persuade them to vote ‘No!’”
While it’s not unusual to conduct focus groups on issues that are slated for a vote in an upcoming election, the fact that it’s such a mystery as to who organized the study and paid the residents is.
The city of Claremont and grassroots organization Claremont FLOW have both confirmed to the COURIER that they did not coordinate anything – including this study—with Nichols Research.
Calls placed to Claremont Affordable Water Advocates (CAWA) and Golden State Water have not been returned as of press time.
A Nichols Research representative confirmed the company was hired by another research firm to recruit participants but would not comment any further, citing client confidentiality. Further, the recruiting company rep stated they have no knowledge of who will be receiving the results of the study.
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