Arcade games! Push poll promoting Water St. infill plan claimed to come from councilmember’s office

Pedestrian arcades along Water St., like this one at 100 Wall St., would be handed over to building owners for private development under a plan whose boosters now include someone willing to resort to shady practices to garner support.

Photo by Bill Egbert
Pedestrian arcades along Water St., like this one at 100 Wall St., would be handed over to building owners for private development under a plan whose boosters now include someone willing to resort to shady practices to garner support.

BY COLIN MIXSON

A mysterious dark horse proponent of a controversial zoning change is trying to drum up support through push-polling from a number masquerading as the local councilmember, who doesn’t even support the measure, according of a community board member who received one such call.

The curious call purported to be polling locals about a proposed zoning text amendment that would give control of public space along Water St. to private developers, but the caller was clearly only interested in supportive responses, according to Southbridge resident and Community Board 1 member Paul Hovitz, who received the call on May 22 with the caller ID reading “Margaret Chin” and displaying the 212-number attached to the local legislator’s district office.

“It’s deeply bizarre,” he said.

When he picked up, Hovitz was greeted by a caller whom he believed was reading off a script, and who evangelized the benefits of the Water St. text amendment, which would allow infill development in the arcade spaces along Water St., showing a clear bias in support of the controversial bill.

“Clearly they were reading some prepared statement, and talked about the text amendment ‘enlivening’ Water St.,” said Hovitz. “I’ve read the text amendment, and I don’t recall anything about ‘enlivening’ Water St.”

The caller then inquired as to whether Hovitz would care to register his support for the measure, which he declined to do, being firm opponent. Instead, he asked to if he could log his disapproval of the text amendment.

After a pause, the line went dead.

“They said ‘hold on,’ and then I guess about ten seconds later I was disconnected,” Hovitz said.

Hovitz explained that he was initially pleased that Chin was seeking her constituents’ input on a divisive and complex issue, but when he was suddenly disconnected after voicing his opposition, Hovitz felt that the councilmember was out of line in soliciting positive responses while ignoring negative ones.

“I thought initially that it was laudable that she was reaching out to her constituents to get a sense of how they felt, but when it seemed they were only looking for positive responses, it indicated a slant in a public issue from an elected official that is unconscionable.”

So Hovitz was relieved — though confused — when Chin’s director of land use and planning, Roxanne Earley, assured him that none of the councilmember’s staffers had been directed to solicit support for the Water St. arcade plan — despite confirming that the number displayed on Hovitz’s caller ID was, in fact, Chin’s district office, he said.

Chin spokesman Paul Leonard told Downtown Express that the councilmember’s office never engages in cold-call surveys or push-polling.

“We don’t do any kind of phone solicitation for this or any other issue,” Leonard said.

After learning of the mysterious call, Chin’s office posited the theory that the enigmatic arcade-plan booster was utilizing a deceptive caller ID “spoofing” technique that tricks a telephone network into displaying a different number than the opne the call actually originated from, Leonard said.

In fact, Councilmember Chin is not even a supporter of the Water St. text amendment, at least as it is currently written, according to Leonard, and would like to see substantial revisions to the measure before lending it her support.

“She does not support them as they’re currently written,” he said.

As it is, the bill would turn over nearly two dozen pedestrian arcades along Water St. to the buildings’ landlords for development, and Chin believes that each arcade should be considered on a case-by-case basis, according to Leonard.

Leonard also noted that this isn’t the first time constituents have gotten bogus calls from “Chin’s office,” suggesting that this particular ID spoofing scheme was not an isolated incident, though he declined to give specifics.

Hovitz’s call is the only reported case so far of a Downtown resident receiving a bogus call pushing the Water St. plan from a caller purporting to represent Chin.

The text amendment hasn’t been scheduled for a Council vote yet, and the fact that someone, somewhere is resorting to fraud and impersonation of an elected official as a means of drumming up support for a controversial bill indicates a desperate element willing to resort to nefarious means to push the plan through, according to Hovitz.

“It tells me there are people very desperate to get this passed,” he said. “To make it seem like our councilmember is steering the issue, is a very desperate act. And not only that, if I were the council member, I would think she’d be infuriated over this.”

The Downtown Alliance, a pro-development organization that helped formulate the Water St. text amendment, confirmed that it has lobbied for local support through a variety of means — including working with outside consultants on phone solicitations — but denied any responsibility for the fraudulent call and promised an investigation.

“We don’t support that technique, categorically, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of what this is,” said Alliance spokesman Andy Breslau.

Breslau also contended that there is sufficient community support for the measure already, so push-polling — fraudulent or not — is unnecessary.

“There is a great deal of public support for this proposal, we’ve tried to organize it and there’s absolutely no need for any kind of misdirection or fake caller ID to manifest that support,” he said.

The fact remains, however, that someone who supports the Water St. plan apparently believes otherwise.

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