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Secessionist Sleight of Hand

Few would argue against fixing municipal government in Los Angeles. Residents feel left out of their own city, most keenly in the San Fernando Valley, where secessionist rhetoric calls for the dismantling of Los Angeles. Although the notion of an outright civic divorce still scares many residents, it intrigues them.

That would help explain why leaders of the group Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, or VOTE, claim they only want to “study” the impact of breaking apart Los Angeles, although a draft petition about to be circulated by the group plainly asks to begin the process of municipal dismemberment. The petition, which will start appearing at the end of May, never mentions the word “secession,” instead relying on the technical “detachment” and “incorporation.”

VOTE leaders insist that they remain unaligned in the debate over whether to split the Valley from Los Angeles. Nonetheless, they plan to spend three months collecting at least 135,000 signatures to do just that. They say the petition to the Local Agency Formation Commission is the only way to seriously study whether Southern California would be better off if communities from Chatsworth to San Pedro went their own ways.

True enough. Just as it was once possible to examine the effects of an atomic bomb only by detonating one, the only way to launch a multimillion-dollar study of secession is to start the process. So why not be straightforward with voters?

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Even as VOTE gears up to circulate its petition, two commissions--one elected, one appointed--are working diligently to redesign Los Angeles government so it better serves its citizens.

Secessionist pressure helped inspire the current charter reform effort and deserves credit for it. But the hope for better governance lies with that reform, not with the empty promises of secessionists.

VOTE seems to want it both ways, asking voters to believe one thing while signing their names to another. According to the petition, “a new independent city in the San Fernando Valley will provide Valley residents autonomy” and make local government “less costly, more efficient, accountable, responsive. . . . " Hardly the words of a group trying to make up its mind. And for an organization that says it is bent on open government, VOTE remains ironically tight-lipped about how it pays its bills.

In fact, the study sought by VOTE would address only the financial and legal nuts and bolts of a municipal divorce. It would examine how to divide assets such as the airport, the water system and the police force. But it would not touch critical issues such as how a new Valley city would be governed.

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State law is clear, though. As a separate city, the Valley would actually start out with worse representation than it now has. There would be five council members, or about one per 260,000 residents, more than each City Council member now represents. The solution, according to secession advocates: a campaign to revamp local government. Sound familiar?


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