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Find the Common Ground

Secession is one of those cases in which most residents have rendered a verdict before hearing all the evidence. Secessionist promises of more cops, better legislators and all-around good feelings that would come with a separate San Fernando Valley city stem as much from wishful thinking as from hard facts. Likewise, the predictions of doomsayers play to the worst fears about race and class. The Times admits to being as guilty as the rest, opposing the breakup of Los Angeles on the philosophical grounds that a great city deserves an overhaul before voters condemn it to the scrap heap.

Regardless of position, though, the dearth of fact has reduced the debate over secession to a shrill contest of prediction, reaction and fantasy. A community forum sponsored last week by Cal State Northridge attempted to provide a balanced discussion weighing the pros, cons and unknowns of splitting Los Angeles. Nothing was settled in the 90-minute panel discussion; most audience members left with their positions unchanged. But it was a start. And if Los Angeles is to survive, more conversations like the one last week are critical.

Revealing in the discussion were the profound philosophical differences that propel divergent groups toward the same goal. In a sense, secession drives and efforts to rewrite the city’s charter are about the same thing: better government. Secessionists believe that good government in a city as large as Los Angeles is an oxymoron. Splintering Los Angeles into one or more new cities, they believe, is the only way to bring government closer to the people it represents. Advocates of charter reform--including The Times--believe more responsive government can emerge from a careful, rational revamp of the document that acts as the city’s constitution.

As one member of the panel noted, those two philosophies are on a collision course. Even as they are collected and cataloged by the bureaucrats charged with drawing municipal boundaries, the facts will no doubt simply get spun into the rhetoric of each side. Plus, the information collected as part of the secession process would not answer many of the biggest questions residents have. That study answers nuts-and-bolts questions such as whether a Valley city could support itself without harming the financial health of Los Angeles as a whole. Left unanswered are questions such as how minority residents might fare or how police would be deployed or even who would run a new city.

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So even with all the facts, big philosophical questions would remain unanswered. The debate threatens to be a divisive and destructive process. Discussions like the one last week should focus charter reformers and secessionists on the missions they share. Avert the collision course. By talking honestly and sharing ideas a new course can be set for a better Los Angeles.


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