The grade is in. And for supporters of consolidation in Columbia County, it's an ugly report card.
For those of us in the information business, though, the score isn't much better.
Students in the graduate-level Public Administration 6100 class, taught by consolidation expert and Augusta State University professor Ralph Walker, recently completed a class project sampling attitudes toward Columbia County's consolidation proposal.
The Attitudinal Survey and Analysis of the Proposed Consolidation of Columbia County used a "structured sample" of 268 telephone surveys to gauge citizens' views on the proposal.
The students who conducted the study - Nicole Acevedo, Michael Hoffman, Michelle Lorio and Dennis Mesina - also attended some of the county's information sessions on consolidation.
After compiling all their information and running the survey results through a number-crunching computer program, the students reached one basic, no-big-surprise conclusion:
Consolidation is very unpopular here.
Now, to be fair, Walker says the survey was not a "random" sample, which would have surveyed opinions equally throughout the county. While the majority of those surveyed were from the higher-populated unincorporated areas, the "structured" sample gave disproportionate weight to Harlem and Grovetown, where consolidation is as popular as jock itch.
As a result, the students found that just 16 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for consolidation; 49 percent would vote no, and 35 percent are undecided.
It's good news for county commissioners, then, that state lawmakers didn't send the proposal to voters this November. The plan would have gone down in flames.
The survey, then, provides a starting point for commissioners who think the plan is worth pursuing. And it shows they have their work cut out for them.
Even though the survey could be helpful in that effort, some of its conclusions are confusing. For example, the summary says two-thirds of those favoring consolidation live in the county's unincorporated area - but it doesn't say how many people living in the unincorporated area favor consolidation. The former point is entertaining; the latter would be useful.
Even so, there is plenty of information in the survey that commissioners and the legislative delegation should study as they decide how to move forward. And it also has some sobering information for the media.
Of all the people surveyed, just 35 percent considered themselves as "being informed" about consolidation - despite months of coverage and commentary on the issue and the county's series of information sessions.
It would be easy to blame the media and the county for failing to properly educate the public on consolidation. But it's interesting to note that despite all the information available, some citizens just don't have a clue.
Like this: One respondent thought a question on franchise fees meant more chain restaurants. Really.
The misinformation may not be just because the citizens never heard the facts; some of it may be because they didn't want to hear them. The students conducting the survey said many of those against consolidation were downright hostile about it. Even though he's just an outside observer, Mesina said, "The people who were against it, I'm just glad they didn't know where I live."
The result of all this? People need more information about consolidation, but many of them aren't willing to take on remedial reading.
Thus, Columbia County flunks an outsiders' text of the consolidation proposal. And it appears, at least for some citizens, extra studying won't help.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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