FlashVote terminates contract with IVGID over allegations of public deception
January 9, 2017
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — At the Dec. 14 IVGID Board of Trustees meeting, district legal counsel Jason Guinasso announced that effective Dec. 1, the third-party citizen governance system FlashVote terminated its contract with the district.
On Dec. 27, IVGID received a check for $2,041.67 from FlashVote — the remainder of the $4,900 pro-rated fee the district paid for the service as part of a one-year contract — ensuring IVGID will no longer use the service as a digital survey tool to gain feedback from residents.
It marks the end of a rocky relationship between both parties, one that in recent months was clouded with differing views on who owns resident data compiled over the years through the public-private partnership, as well as differing views on if IVGID was trying to break Nevada law by allegedly manipulating verbiage of questions.
IVGID signed a one-year contract with FlashVote — owned by Incline resident Kevin Lyons — on May 2016, following two-plus years of beta testing with the service.
During the trial period, IVGID was able to push out surveys for free, and in turn the district helped promote FlashVote to Incline/Crystal Bay residents through a mailing, email newsletters and other communications in order to solicit people to sign up for the service.
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With that, FlashVote also received an email list of residents to help Lyons promote the service, according to the district, and that email list was maintained through the paid period of community surveys.
In a follow-up email to the Bonanza, Lyons stated that FlashVote — which now operates under the company Governance Sciences Group, Inc. — started collaborating with IVGID on an informal pilot basis in late 2013, and eventually grew its user base to over 400 residents.
He said he started working with IVGID after observing the district operate and concluding that, "the management and board at the time were making some common but preventable mistakes based on lack of good input and oversight from the public."
However, Guinasso said the original email list provided to Lyons during the beta period years ago served as the foundation for FlashVote, and thus the development of the company's database — therefore, that email list is owned by IVGID.
"The contract clearly delineates who owns what," said Guinasso.
According to the contract, "customer data" is defined as "non-public data provided by (IVGID) to (Flashvote) to enable the provision of the Services … such as non-public citizen email addresses or other non-pubic citizen data."
Under that clause, Lyons stated in an email to the Bonanza that, "IVGID has not provided us any customer data and they know that."
Guinasso, meanwhile, said that if FlashVote sends surveys moving forward to the user database that IVGID helped build, that puts IVGID in a position to take legal action since it has an obligation to protect its residents' data.
"Our big concern is solely on the data solicited and developed from our citizen database," Guinasso said. "We want to make sure it isn't misused or used at all without the consent of the people who signed up. If (Lyons is) using it for his own benefit, then that's harming the public and we have an obligation to protect that information.
"The data was collected for a single purpose — to survey the community on behalf of the public."
According to previous reports, Lyons has indicated that security issues are not a concern.
"Privacy and security are central to the service," Lyons said in a June 2015 Bonanza story. "Anonymity is key to receiving that honest feedback without repercussions."
Why FlashVote Ended the Contract with IVGID
Lyons stated that a key aspect of getting citizens to join FlashVote and participate in surveys is because the company is an independent third party — and thus, not a government — that is trusted by users to maintain the quality and anonymity of the surveys.
FlashVote customers always pick their topics and questions, Lyons said, but FlashVote makes sure all questions go through an extensive, 23-point quality control process before they go out to citizens.
"FlashVote made the decision to terminate IVGID as a customer after a second incident where IVGID management demanded that these quality control standards be ignored," Lyons stated in an email to the Bonanza. "The first time this happened, FlashVote maintained its integrity by rejecting the survey and moving forward. The second time, FlashVote believed it was being asked to ignore not just the quality standards but also Nevada state law (NRS 197.130) against making false and misleading statements to the public."
As part of research for this story, the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza obtained copies of extensive email strings between Lyons and IVGID Communication Coordinator Misty Moga, other IVGID staff and Guinasso, specific to the "second time" Lyons referenced in his statement.
That string in late November details how both sides disagreed about the wording of a potential FlashVote question regarding updates to the district's trash law, Ordinance 1.
According to the emails, IVGID wanted to ask residents about planned changes to the law, which would bring it in line with the district's new franchise agreement with Waste Management, which, per IVGID, "requires residential customers" to use wildlife-resistant containers or bear boxes.
Lyons disagreed with IVGID's wording, alleging that, among other concerns, an ordinance is what "requires" residents to do something per Nevada law, not a franchise agreement — and thus, by wording it otherwise, IVGID was intentionally misleading the public.
That then spiraled into a back-and-forth accusatory exchange between Guinasso and Lyons.
"No one is asking you to publish anything that is false and/or misleading … You are, once again, aggressively attempting to dictate to IVGID what they can publish in FlashVote and what they cannot publish," Guinasso wrote. "There is nothing constructive about unilaterally vetoing and/or revising language."
Lyons responded, in part: "If IVGID wants to send crappy surveys (or worse), including previously rejected questions like they did recently with surveygizmo, that's up to IVGID. But we can't and don't do that — its the core of our value proposition to citizens and governments … We can no longer continue working with IVGID after the present intransigence and the perceived risks and hassles of continuing in this way."
In a follow-up interview, Guinasso was asked if he or the district was deliberately attempting to break state law and/or intentionally mislead the public.
Guinasso said that ordinances stand on their own regardless of implementation of a third-party service, and the verbiage in the Waste Management franchise agreement shouldn't affect the ordinance.
"The franchise agreement is on its own track. It's already confusing enough to the public, so why make it worse?" asked Guinasso.
Another Incident Between FlashVote and IVGID
In July 2016, FlashVote sent out a "grassroots" survey about trash to some members of the Incline Village/Crystal Bay community.
It read, in part: "NOTE: This is a Grassroots survey (beta) that has not been approved by IVGID or any government agency. Grassroots surveys may be sponsored by citizens or other community benefactors to give governments data they may not know they should have."
In an email statement to the Bonanza for this story, Lyons said the IVGID logo was accidentally included in the survey due to a technical error, and the image was removed halfway through its release.
The survey itself asked residents if they were aware of the garbage/recycling changes going into effect and their reaction to it.
In another email string between Lyons and IVGID, Lyons stated to Moga in a July 28 message, "Just a heads up that it looks like we will doing a one day 'grassroots' survey on garbage service this afternoon, sponsored by some local citizens. It wont interfere with the regular survey scheduled for next week, but dont hesitate to call or email me if you have any other questions or concerns!"
When asked for this story, Lyons declined to say who the private group of citizens was that sponsored the "grassroots" survey.
IVGID apparently did have concerns, considering the perception that residents may struggle to distinguish between an IVGID-sanctioned survey, and a separate one sponsored by district residents — both being on a similar topic.
According to the emails, Moga asked Lyons to hold off on sending the survey until it could be discussed with IVGID General Manager Steve Pinkerton.
Lyons responded: "I cant actually do that, since someone else is the customer in this case…"
Moga asked Lyons if he was using the IVGID-provided email list to conduct the private survey. Lyons responded, "It goes (looks like went) out to our users in the geographic area they selected which is the IVGID district which is Incline Village and Crystal Bay."
When asked about this instance, Lyons emailed the following statement to the Bonanza, "FlashVote has never sent an 'unauthorized FlashVote survey' and FlashVote does not have an 'IVGID-provided customer database.' FlashVote customers have to approve every survey we launch for them."
IVGID Trustee Matthew Dent has been a major advocate of FlashVote since joining the Board of Trustees as an appointee in 2015. He was elected to a full term earlier this November.
Dent currently holds the second highest points in FlashVote's "IVGID group leaderboard" behind former Trustee Jim Smith, who resigned in August 2015 (of note, Dent was who replaced Smith on the board).
Dent said he promoted FlashVote because he felt that IVGID needs a function for surveying the community, and that this allows the community to have its voice heard.
"It's unfortunate that they ended their contract from what I understand is due to administrative differences between IVGID and FlashVote," Dent said.
Guinasso said it is IVGID's duty to use local vendors when possible.
One of FlashVote's current customers, Placer County, encouraged its citizens to sign up for FlashVote through its communication outlets, indicating that FlashVote retains the rights to all of the data it collects.
The two surveys the county sent out in August and September had a positive response, said Placer County Spokesperson DeDe Cordell.
"Our experience with FlashVote is positive. Anytime we can get more data on what we do, it's great for us," says Cordell. "A lot of people don't trust government period, so this is a great tool to get more data."
She added that of all the tools the county uses to communicate, FlashVote's service is the least expensive. According to a proposal between Flashvote and Placer County provided this week to the Bonanza, Placer signed on for the same $4,900 rate.
The Truckee Tahoe Airport District has also used FlashVote.
General Manager Kevin Smith said the district sent out a FlashVote survey for its Master Plan project in 2015, and did not use it again.
"I think it's a good product, but my Board just isn't impressed with surveys in general, so we did not continue using it," Smith said.
According to an email from Lyons, FlashVote maintains a healthy client base, including several regional government agencies, such as the Tahoe City Public Utility District and city of South Lake Tahoe.
Of that base, it appears IVGID has been the "lone problem child."
"No other government has ever had the slightest problem or hiccup with this process," Lyons wrote in one of the email strings obtained by the Bonanza. "In fact they all deeply desire and appreciate it. IVGID management has now generated a problem for us twice in the last 6 months as the lone problem child."
In his email to the Bonanza, Lyons indicated he's "enjoyed working on surveys with all the IVGID staff members who are dedicated to serving our community and hearing how useful FlashVote survey results are to their work. FlashVote will be open to considering alternative ways to continue to serve the IVGID community of users in the future."
Kayla Anderson is an Incline Village-based freelance writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bonanza Editor Kevin MacMillan contributed to the research and editing of this report; you may email him at email@example.com.