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How the City Games the System Through Sampling Bias

By Joseph Glidden

April 10, 2017 (La Mesa) --At its annual Town Hall Meetings, the City of La Mesa gathers skewed data that is then uses to make important decisions at the Strategic Planning Session held later in the year. While the town hall meetings might give the illusion of civic engagement, the data collected is misleading at best. Once again the City Council is busy with the irrelevant, at the expense of the essential.  

La Mesa has been holding annual town hall meetings for the past 10 years. One on the east side of town and the other on the west. Over the years and at both locations, the concerns voiced by residents have been conspicuously similar. Why would this be so?

Our town hall meetings are held at local schools. Officials on the dais and residents who come to speak, fondly remember attending or sending their children to those schools. They naturally have concerns about the traffic, sidewalks, crosswalks, and crime — in the area surrounding the school. This is called the availability bias: our tendency to focus on things that are recent, memorable, or that we have personally experienced.

The City does much of its advertising for town hall meetings via signage on major streets near the schools where the event is to be held. As a result, most of the people who see the notices and who come to the meetings are commuters using these busy thoroughfares, and who have traffic concerns on their minds. This is called selection bias: the statistical error of not choosing a sample that is random and representational. 

Let me suggest other possible scenarios: If the City had chosen to hold its town hall meetings at a church, it would not be unusual for the attendees to focus on church-related problems: feeding, clothing and sheltering the homeless, for example. Or if the City had chosen the interim library as its venue, it would not be surprising for those in attendance to ask why we have a library that is one half the size needed for a community of 60,000 people? Or why the City has done nothing in the past 10 years to pursue funding for the promised full-size library? 

Whether or not these errors are intentional, it is vital for the Council to make important decisions based on relevant facts and not on amusing anecdotes. Once again, I ask that the Council to employ “evidence-based” decision making practices when doing the people’s work.

The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact

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