There is a big difference between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation includes honest mistakes; disinformation knowingly and intentionally misleads.
We didn't know which we were dealing with when we saw the flyer attached to a Town Square post last month.
The flyer inviting Pleasanton residents to a signature gathering event Jan. 22 announced a five-story commercial and residential building with no parking near Pleasanton's historic downtown was "coming soon" to the corner of Harrison Street at Old Bernal Avenue.
Not remembering this project being approved, which the "coming soon" certainly implied we checked and found not only was the project not "coming soon," the application was still being reviewed. In fact, a few days later, city staff issued a letter to the applicant rejecting the application's request for ministerial approval under new state law.
People would obviously be worked into a frenzy if they believed construction of a project of this size was imminent especially if, according to the flyer, this was "only the first project with more forced developments coming to Pleasanton neighborhoods in the near future!"
Since the ultimate goal was to gather signatures for a proposed statewide ballot initiative, colloquially called "Our Neighborhood Voices" campaign, to (again, according to the flyer) "take back local control of our neighborhoods and community," it looked a lot like disinformation.
Getting signatures needed to place a measure on a ballot with scare tactics and, thus, creating the aforementioned frenzy definitely seemed intentional.
The startling part was that the flyer had City Councilmember Julie Testa's personal email at the bottom. We received the Town Square post (which was not done by Testa) a few days after the Jan. 18 council meeting, during which Testa asked for the city's endorsement of the proposed initiative.
Testa is the founder of the California Alliance of Local Electeds (CALE), a statewide alliance of local city officials that collaborates on proposed state legislation and other local and statewide issues, including maintaining local control. A laudable principle.
In August 2020, Testa wrote a Guest Opinion published in the Pleasanton Weekly about legislation eroding local laws and City Council authority that had passed in 2019 and a "package of bills that will do far greater harm is rushing through Sacramento under cover of COVID-19."
CALE sent Gov. Gavin Newsom and members of the State Legislature a "Declaration of a California Crisis of Governance." Because of the pandemic and social unrest during the summer of 2020, the group stated in the declaration, most Californians were unaware of these bills, which used "vague and unclear language, and asked the legislature and governor to "suspend all activity on land-use bills" for at least a year.
That didn't happen.
Changes in state law (more than 70 laws in the past few years) have indeed eroded and continue to threaten local control over land-use issues. That's frightening. Cities should be able to determine their own destinies.
We can deduce that because of her passion for the subject of local control and connection to CALE, Testa wants to get a large number of signatures in her own hometown. And the lack of endorsement by the city of Pleasanton must have stung.
But it doesn't lessen the fact that a misleading, provocative message about a local project is not an appropriate means to an end.
That said, we don't believe Testa and her fellow local advocates intentionally misrepresented the status of the Harrison Street project. She said during the Jan. 18 meeting that "with certainty the law that the state passed with SB35 is telling us we cannot protect our city from a project that will be completely inappropriate for our downtown." She seemed to fully believe this project was going to be forced through because of the state.
Additionally, after the Jan. 26 staff letter to the applicant rejecting the application, the messaging on the next flyer was changed. We also acknowledge that just because this initial application was rejected does not mean the developer won't resubmit the project in some fashion for consideration again in the future.
Nevertheless, the first flyer's message should have been more accurate by explaining an application had been submitted, not that it was "coming soon."
The bottom line is a simple inquiry to verify the status of the project wasn't made and a panic-inducing message went out, seemingly from an elected official who would have been expected to know better.
Proponents of this initiative and signature gatherers need to provide upfront, honest and accurate communication.
The most important lesson here, though, is that voters should do their own research before signing anything.
As for the Our Neighborhood Voices proposed initiative, our editorial board, like the Pleasanton City Council, is not taking a position at this time. More needs to be known about the possible consequences should this make it to the ballot and voters approve it.