What should Metro do with the thousands of acres of open spaces it has acquired in recent years - preserve them in their natural states or open them up for activities like hiking, biking, walking and other recreation?

The regional government's elected leaders are considering that question as they ponder whether to put a property tax measure on the May 2013 ballot to maintain and improve the region's 15,000 acres of natural areas.

As they do so, Metro councilors are reviewing the results of a recent online survey that says most respondents - nearly 80 percent - prefer preserving the existing quality of the areas, including their rivers, streams, wildlife and fish.

The survey was conducted as part of a Metro public engagement program called Opt In. It includes regular online surveys prepared and analyzed by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc., a local research firm. More than 17,000 residents in the urbanized portions of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties are participating in it.

"In surveys and focus groups, people are telling us the traditional civic engagement process isn't working any more," said DHM founding partner Adam Davis. "They don't have the time to go to evening and weekend meetings. They want government to use technology to come to them, to make it fun, and to tell them how their information is being used. That's what Opt In is all about."

Although the Metro Council is not bound by survey results, it is an independent source of information about where regional residents stand on the issues. In the past, Opt In surveys have covered such subjects as ways to reduce congestion, uses of the region's performing arts facilities, and whether to expand the Portland-area urban growth boundary that Metro administers.

Now the Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers want local readers to join the conversation. The newspapers are partnering with Metro on a new survey about such issues as jobs, parks, transportation and the region's economy.

To register, just go to survey-site and follow the instructions.

Under-represented groups

Metro launched the Opt In project in early 2011 to improve the number, representation and diversity of comments received from the public. The surveys also help Metro officials understand regional values for future planning purposes.

In February, Metro staff reported that substantial progress toward achieving the goals had been achieved during the project's first year. Ten surveys generated more than 20,000 completed responses and thousands of open-ended questions. Participation ranged from a low of 39 percent to a high of 70 percent. Average participation was 49 percent, well above the industry standard and significantly higher than typical email survey rates.

However, staff reported that some groups are still not well represented in the surveys. They include: people of color; Clackamas and Washington county residents; Republicans; people without college degrees; and people between the ages of 18 and 34.

At the same time, previous Opt In surveys have generally reflected the findings of scientific ones and political differences within the region.

For example, a scientific survey conducted on natural area issues for Metro in March also found a majority of respondents favored preservation instead of increasing access - 61 percent compared to 11 percent.

In addition, a number of Opt In surveys on transportation issues found less support for transit projects in Clackamas County compared to Multnomah County, a difference reflected in the fight on funding the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project.

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