Proponents of an initiative to limit hotel development in Sonoma say they have gathered about 25 percent of the signatures needed to qualify the measure for a special election.

Larry Barnett, a former mayor and the main proponent of the ballot measure, said workers have collected about 250 of the 1,017 signatures of registered voters needed to force the election. He said the petitioning process of his group, Preserving Sonoma, is just getting fully organized.

Barnett, who formerly owned a bed and breakfast inn, also sharply criticized a poll paid for by a developer seeking to build a 59-room luxury hotel near Sonoma's plaza — a project that would be blocked if the measure succeeded. He denounced the poll as a deliberate attempt on the part of Kenwood Investments to influence public opinion.

"The poll completely distorts and misrepresents both what I'm saying and what the initiative technically does," said Larry Barnett. "It's more along the lines of a push poll."

Push polls are generally intended to sway or shape public opinion while conventional survey polls are intended to guage levels of public opinion on issues.

Darius Anderson, who owns Kenwood Investments, issued a statement Friday confirming that the company conducted a survey "because we want to know what the community thinks about the issue of hotels and tourism."

Neither Anderson nor Bill Hooper, the investment firm's president, would provide details about the poll, such as who conducted it or its methodology.

Anderson is a principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

The poll is another indication of how things are heating up in Sonoma over the proposed initiative, which would cap any new hotel or expansion of an existing one to 25 rooms unless the city's hotel occupancy rate over the previous calendar year exceeded 80 percent. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.

Preserving Sonoma contends that the measure is necessary to protect the city's quality of life from what its members consider to be major hotel development.

Opponents say the measure would stymie economic growth and result in a de facto ban on most hotels by setting an impossibly high occupancy standard.

Barnett was not asked to participate in the poll. Rather, he based his accusations on what others who took the survey relayed to him.

They included Beth Harper, a Sonoma CPA who is volunteering for Barnett's group.

Harper on Friday said she was asked at the outset of the phone survey to rank the importance of several issues pertaining to Sonoma, such as keeping the city's streets in good repair and the city having a balanced budget.

Harper said she was told that Barnett is a leader of the initiative and that he has stated that Sonoma has too many hotels — a statement Barnett denies making.

Harper said she was asked about other statements allegedly made by both supporters and opponents of the measure.

She said the pollster concluded the survey by asking Harper whether she would support a 59-room hotel being built in Sonoma if the structure could not be seen from the city's plaza, if it did not increase above-ground parking and if it provided jobs.

"She kept adding more and more goodies to the basket to see if it would be something I could support in the cumulative, that would make me say, 'Oh, OK, another 100 jobs and I'll support it.' But there was nothing in the list that would make me support it," Harper said.

Harper said she was told the poll was being conducted by J. Moore Methods.

Jim Moore is a Sacramento-based pollster who has a long track-record of conducting public opinion surveys in Sonoma County, mostly on issues related to transportation.

That included the Sonoma County Transportation Authority hiring Moore in 2008 to conduct a survey on whether county residents supported a sales tax measure to help fund a commuter train.

Moore did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

Push polls are not really polls, "but political manipulation trying to hide behind the smoke screen of a public opinion survey," according to the website for the National Council on Public Polls.

Legitimate polls can include negative questions to gauge the public's reaction to a candidate's position, or to a possible legitimate attack on a candidate's record, the council states.

Some ways to distinguish that kind of survey with a push poll is the scope of the operation — a push poll involves thousands of calls, instead of hundreds for most surveys — and whether the polling was done by a firm using scientific methods, versus a telemarketer or the campaign itself, according to the council.

"I would find it extremely unlikely to find someone of Jim Moore's caliber doing a push poll," said Terry Price, a Santa Rosa political consultant.

Price said legitimate polls test negative messaging on both sides of an issue or campaign.

He said push polls target likely voters and ask questions that are the equivalent of, "If you knew this candidate was beating his wife, would you vote for him or not?"