When people in Florissant started getting the phone calls asking about pit bulls in early September, they didn't know what to think. The callers said they were conducting a survey, but the questions seemed designed to sway opinion, not solicit it.
They asked if the respondent thought pit bulls were a danger to people, or to cats or other dogs. If they knew a family with small children was contemplating pit bull adoption, the callers asked, would they try to talk them out of it?
Mandy Ryan, who works with a group seeking to overturn the north county suburb's pit bull ban
, heard about the calls and wondered who could be behind them. She encouraged members to ask around. One Florissant resident called the city clerk and asked directly if the city was involved. No, she was told. Others heard the same thing from council members.
Unconvinced, the group put in a Sunshine Law request. In response to their request, the city recently acknowledged not only that it had commissioned a study, but it had paid $9,700 for the privilege, Ryan says. The "citizen survey" polled 300 citizens on the taxpayer's dime — a cost of $32 per household.
Mayor Tom Schneider did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.
Interestingly, even with questions that seemed designed to lead respondents to negative judgments about pit bulls, the survey had mixed results. The script ended by asking if the respondents supported the city's eleven-year-old ban. "Citizens are divided," the survey's authors report. "44.5 percent favor the ordinance and 47.5 percent oppose it — a statistical tie considering sampling error."
Ryan's group has since commissioned a far less costly survey — one that talked to 555 people using an automated phone system. Survey St. Louis' poll cost just $350, Ryan says. And it found that 65.49 percent of respondents opposed the breed-specific ban on pit bulls, while 28.73 percent were in favor.
Tom Smith, owner of Survey St. Louis, says it's less that the city got gouged in its study and more that his company is unusually affordable. Still, he says he has some serious qualms about the survey Florissant commissioned.
"As a business person, I found it very misleading," he says. "It was basically asking, 'Would you be in favor of your child hanging out with sexual predators?' Obviously, they weren't trying to get someone's opinion. They were trying to give their opinion. And I personally don't operate that way."
Ryan says her group intends to keep pushing for the ban to be overturned. A separate public records request has shown that, just in the last five years, 201 pit bulls confiscated by Florissant thanks to its breed-specific ban have been transferred to St. Louis County — and 164 of those have been killed. That's a cost of nearly $7,000, she says.
At the same time, dog bite reports in Florissant have only increased, from 38 in 2005 to 82 last year. Ryan believes that's because the city's limited resources are being focused on rooting out pit bulls, not dealing with dogs who are actually dangerous.
"Public safety is our No. 1 concern," she says. "And any time you have a breed-specific ban, dog bites go up."
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