What started out as a simple town survey to gauge public interest in bond financing for parks, road and facilities projects has turned into a controversial fact-finding mission.
The Morrisville Town Council on Tuesday asked for an internal investigation into the survey results after one councilman found what he called “ballot stuffing ” which potentially skewed support for some bond projects.
Councilman Mark Stohlman said he found that 12 nearly identical surveys were sent from the same IP address listing support for a $20 million bond package. Stohlman said he traced it back to a person associated with the town.
The information has not yet been confirmed independently, and the name of the individual has not been released.
“Trust is on the line,” Stohlman said. “It’s deplorable that someone might do this.”
He said the council was getting ready to make decisions based on invalid or questionable results.
However, the surveys under scrutiny represent about 12 percent of the total results. In total, the town received 101 surveys – 0.5 percent of the town’s 20,000 residents.
Thirty-six percent of respondents said they would be willing to support a $20 million bond, another 37 percent said they would be willing to support a 2012 bond referendum with as much funding as needed, according to the survey.
One councilman questioned the need to ferret out the source of the dozen surveys. Councilman Steve Diehl told Stohlman that if he didn’t agree with the survey results Stohlman should just ignore them and vote with his conscience.
Diehl said it appeared Stohlman wanted “to embarrass someone in public.” Even if an employee was found to have tampered with the survey results Diehl said the repercussions were unclear.
“What are we going to do? Fire the staff member?” Diehl asked.
Diehl told the council he may have mistakenly submitted multiple surveys over a series of days. He said he didn’t get a completed survey message and thought there was a glitch in the system, so he kept trying. But he doesn’t think he resubmitted it 12 times.
Councilwoman Liz Johnson said she supported the investigation but was less inclined to say without proof that the owner of the IP address acted unethically.
“You are taking a major leap that something unethical happened,” Johnson told Stohlman. “There could have been a malfunction. There could be some plausible explanation. I have a problem making a leap that something unethical was done.”
In the end, the council voted 5-2 to approve the investigation. Diehl and Mayor Jackie Holcombe voted against the proposal.
Even with the cloud of suspicion over the survey, the council’s preliminary selections for the bond referendum mirrored the survey’s results.
According to the results 66 percent supported extending McCrimmon Parkway from N.C. 54 to Evans Road; 70 percent said the Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center was important, financial impact aside and 57 percent said the Morrisville Community Center Phase III was important, financial impact aside.
The council asked the staff Tuesday to look into putting those three projects, totaling about $15 million, on the fall ballot. Staff is expected to present a debt analysis on June 12 and the council. A public hearing is planned for August. No final decisions have been made.
One resident not pleased with the council’s selection was Saadat Siddiqui.
He said about 150 Morrisville residents – more than those who completed the survey – submitted a petition in November asking for the town to fill in the gaps in the sidewalks on Morrisville Carpenter Road. He was disappointed the council didn’t include that project in the bond.
He also said the N.C. 54 project to expand McCrimmon Parkway from Airport Boulevard to Evans Road, isn’t what people want.
“A majority don’t want to be spending that much on that N.C. 54 extension, it’s a road out into the wilderness,” he said.
The project is touted to help boost economic development in that area.
For more information on the bonds visit www.townofmorrisville.org.