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Publics opinions in online program helps guide regional agency decisions

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 for activities such as 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.

If you missed that survey, you can take part in the next one - and all the others that will be conducting as part of a Metro public engagement program called Opt In. The newspaper you are reading invites you to join the conversations on such issues as jobs, parks, transportation and the region's economy.

The Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers have partnered with Metro on the next survey, and will report the results when it is finished.

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

Information gathered through the registration process will not be shared with any other government or business. The Opt In website also has results of previous surveys and a list of who is also participating.

Time in short supply

Opt In surveys are prepared and analyzed by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc., a local research firm. More than 17,000 people in the urban parts of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington countries are participating in it.

"In surveys and focus groups, people are telling us the traditional civic engagement process isn't working any more," says 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. 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.

Other Opt In partners include the AARP, the United Way, the Northwest Health Foundation and Portland State University's College of Urban and Public Affairs.

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 generally have 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.

And Opt In surveys also cost far less than scientific surveys, about $5,000. A telephone survey in the region can cost $25,000 to $50,000. Excluding startup costs, each completed Opt In survey costs about $4.50. That is well below the cost of obtaining comments at more traditional public forums, including open houses and stakeholder meetings.

People joining Opt In will be emailed a survey that helps the Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers better understand what stories you want to read each week.

To sweeten the deal, people taking the survey also will be entered in a raffle to win one of five $100 Visa cash cards.

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