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By Willoughby Mariano April 13, 2012

MAVEN: 200,000 given chance to sound off on tax

A new mailer about a referendum to fund a transportation overhaul for metro Atlanta makes it appear as if voters had a hand in this plan to raise their taxes.  

Voters will decide July 31 whether they want to pay a 1 percent sales tax to build an estimated $7.2 billion worth of roads, highway interchanges, mass transit infrastructure and other projects to ease traffic in a region that’s choking on it.  

More than two dozen local leaders spent months hammering out that list of projects through state-created regional roundtables. The mailer, which appeared in a PolitiFact Georgia reporter’s home mailbox April 3, said the average Joe had a say, too.  

"[O]ver 200,000 ordinary citizens were given the opportunity to identify projects they preferred," it said.

It’s enough to make a populist swoon. But 200,000 people? Is that even possible?

PolitiFact Georgia called up the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network, which sent out the mailer on the proposed transportation special local option tax, or T-SPLOST. The nonprofit’s mission is to educate voters about the referendum.

A MAVEN spokeswoman said the Atlanta Regional Commission, the region’s planning agency, contacted 1.3 million residents last year for telephone town hall meetings about the plan.

Part of ARC’s mission is public outreach, so it regularly tallies the number of residents it involves, spokeswoman Julie Ralston said.

Our research shows ARC has a track record for doing so. It counted residents who participated in Plan 2040, which identified transportation projects the region will need in the next three decades. It posted numbers on the project’s website.

T-SPLOST’s website, news accounts and ARC news releases chronicle the series of 10 evening telephone town hall meetings in June.

ARC contracted with Telephone TownHall Meeting, a Denver-area company that uses Web and telephone technology to hold virtual meetings. Members of Congress often use the meetings to connect with voters back home.

Telephone TownHall Meeting owner Curt Cerveny told us how the meetings typically work:  

The company calls tens of thousands of land lines and cellphones for their target households. Some numbers don’t work. Others send the call to voicemail or a fax machine. Sometimes, people hang up.  

About 15 percent to 20 percent of the time, someone picks up and listens in for at least one minute, Cerveny said. Usually, listeners spend eight to 10 minutes on the line.

The T-SPLOST town halls attempted to reach 1.3 million registered voters, an ARC report said. The town halls took place by county.

"It was the biggest call we had ever done," Cerveny said. "It was kind of ahead of its time."

Some 134,400 households participated. They stayed on the line for an average of 10.59 minutes. Presenters took 213 live questions.

(This PolitiFact Georgia scribe received one of those calls on her cellphone. She was in her car, stuck in gridlock.)

This number does not include calls that went to voicemail. These households received messages telling voters how they can have a say in the project. The report did not state the number of listeners per call.

This amounts to about 10 percent participation, or slightly less than what Cerveny said was typical.  

ARC launched other outreach efforts. In March and April 2011, 126 residents of the affected counties participated in a series of 12 focus groups. In July, about 200 attended a 3 ½-hour town hall meeting. In September, 12 public meetings were attended by about 1,700 people, according to ARC meeting notes.

An online survey generated 9,600 responses. Interested residents could also consult the project’s website,

Local governments and private organizations also conducted their own outreach. ARC collaborated with more than 80 of them to get the word out, Ralston said.

One is the Livable Communities Coalition, an Atlanta nonprofit that works on regional growth strategies. A "very conservative" estimate is that its efforts reached 5,000 people, said Jim Stokes, the group’s interim executive director.

To conclude:

Since ARC tried to reach 1.3 million people through its telephone town halls and managed to get about 10 percent of them, we think it’s safe to say that more than 200,000 were "given the opportunity" to participate.  

In addition, some 20,000 participated in meetings, online surveys and other outreach efforts organized by the planning agency. Local governments and other organizations performed outreach as well.

This is a lot of "ordinary citizens," but their influence had limits. The decision rested with the regional roundtable. Members could accept -- or ignore -- public comments as they saw fit.  

That said, MAVEN’s mailer stopped short of saying that these voters controlled the process. Furthermore, its participation estimate is conservative. Its statement earns our highest rating -- True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network mailer, received the week of April 2, 2012

Atlanta Regional Commission, news release, "Public Invited to Participate in Transportation Townhall Meetings," June 6, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Phone ‘town halls' to get referendum feedback," June 12, 2011

Atlanta Regional Roundtable, public outreach page, accessed April 6, 2012

Atlanta Regional Roundtable, "Telephone Townhalls Summary Report," accessed April 6, 2012

Atlanta Regional Roundtable, "Get a Move On" report, Aug. 1, 2011

Atlanta Regional Roundtable, online survey results, accessed April 6, 2012

Atlanta Regional Roundtable, September 2011 Public Meetings webpage, accessed April 6, 2012

Atlanta Regional Commission, news release, "History-Making Transportation Referendum Process," Dec. 16, 2010

Telephone interview, Julie Ralston, spokeswoman, Atlanta Regional Commission, April 6, 2012

Email interview, Saba Long, spokeswoman, Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network, April 5 and 6, 2012

Telephone interview, Jim Stokes, interim executive director, Livable Communities Coalition, April 6, 2012

Telephone interview, Curt Cerveny, owner, Telephone TownHall Meeting, April 6, 2012

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