Secession Bid Churns Along but Has a Way to Go


The threat of secession looms large in Los Angeles: It has sorely tested the city’s political and business relationships, it could undermine Mayor Richard Riordan’s legacy, and it distinguishes this city as the only major metropolis in the nation that is seriously contemplating its own dissolution.

On paper, however, secession advocates have not accomplished much in pursuit of their dream of a new city in the San Fernando Valley, one that some say would create a smaller, more efficient and more responsive government than Los Angeles now offers them.

Over the past few years there has been talk in the Valley of secession, but advocates of studying the idea have struggled recently for petition signatures. They also have yet to demonstrate broad-based support beyond a few obviously self-interested businesses--notably the Valley-based Daily News and the region’s largest car dealer--and a number of politicians and would-be politicians who see in the Valley a chance to win the new offices that would accompany a new government.


Amid rising tempers and increasingly personal invective, the secession movement churns ahead, in the process rankling the mayor whose popularity is soaring, despite the rebellion in his strongest political base. Riordan easily carried the Valley in 1993 and 1997.

But neither his popularity nor his efforts to derail the secession drive have turned many heads.

Seeking to blunt the effort, Riordan held his annual State of the City address in Woodland Hills this year; he backed creation of neighborhood councils over the objections of his usual business allies; and he regularly stumps in the Valley to counsel that splitting away from the rest of the city would leave the new city cash-short and debt-ridden.

Time and again, the mayor has recommended meaningful reform of the City Charter as an alternative that would improve government and end talk of secession.

Those committed to studying secession express their appreciation for the mayor and push forward regardless.

“Secession is a terrible idea, both for the Valley and for the rest of the city,” Riordan said in an interview last week. “They’ll get a new set of politicians, a new set of bureaucrats. They’re going to duplicate infrastructure. They’re going to pay higher taxes.”


But Riordan insisted that his resistance to secession is not motivated by a desire to protect his place in history.

“To me, that is a very counterproductive way of thinking,” he said. “My legacy will be decided by somebody in 20 years. My job is to take care of the city now.”

And taking care of the city, in Riordan’s view, means keeping it together.

For their part, leaders of the group called Valley VOTE--who advocate not exactly secession but rather support studying the idea--blend their admiration for the mayor with their rejection of his advice.

Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE, said he doubts that taxes would jump if the Valley broke away to become an independent city. City government would be smaller, more efficient and its leaders would be more accountable to taxpayers on spending decisions, Close argued.

“In L.A., everyone is a manager and only a small percentage of people in city government actually do the work,” Close said. “Most manage other people, who manage other people, who manage other people.”

Still, Close said people shouldn’t take his word for it--or Riordan’s.

Close and Valley VOTE stress that all they are seeking now is a study by the Local Agency Formation Commission to determine the fiscal impact of secession on the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles. Only then, after the analysis provides clear evidence of how taxes and other city finances would be affected, should people decide whether Valley independence is a good idea, Close said.


“All we’re trying to do through this process is get the information,” Close said. “When it’s time to make a decision, we’ll have all the facts.”

Meanwhile, advocates of studying secession counter that opponents have their own agenda of personal and corporate self-interest. In particular, they have singled out Mark Willes, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, for his participation in a civic organization of 26 Los Angeles CEOs that, among other things, is pushing charter reforms that would keep the city together rather than break it apart.

That group, known as the Los Angeles Business Advisors, is not alone. Downtown business organizations from LABA to the Chamber of Commerce to the Central City Assn. all support a stronger center and an empowered mayor’s office, on the theory that economic growth is greatest when central decision-making is strongest.

In pursuit of that goal, downtown business has fought against proposals to create strong, autonomous and elected neighborhood councils. Such boards, business leaders feel, would stymie development and make an already dense bureaucratic web impenetrable.

Those concerns presumably would not be limited to businesses in the heart of Los Angeles, but would extend to the Valley. But some of that region’s significant business and homeowner groups have thrown their lot in with splinter advocates--who believe neighborhoods ought to have a strong say in controlling their own development--and against the rest of the business community.

That has infuriated much of the downtown business establishment. Last week, a number of other Valley business and homeowner organizations joined together to fight what they see as the efforts of downtown business groups to dominate the city debate on charter reform.


Their cohesion already is questionable, however. After initially indicating that they were joined by VICA, the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. and by far the Valley’s most notable business group, the new coalition was confronted with a statement of reticence from that organization.

“Charter reform is a very complicated issue. VICA has not joined a coalition,” the group’s chairman, Steve Lew, said last week. “VICA’s position remains in support of” a plan that calls for strong neighborhood councils “and of meaningful charter reform.”

Details and competing plans aside, the most vexing aspect of the secession debate to some is the question of where such a process might end.

Although the Valley’s splinter movement is the most developed, other areas of the city are dabbling with the notion. In each case, proponents cite the virtues of smallness as opposed to the difficulties of running a city as immense as Los Angeles.

The seductiveness of the notion inevitably raises the difficult question: Once breakup starts, who’s to contain it? If the San Fernando Valley leaves Los Angeles, what’s to keep Woodland Hills or Encino from leaving the new city? Where, in other words, does all of this end?

In fact, Valley VOTE’s leaders not only hope that secession will prove infectious, they’re counting on it. Close said he expects that if Valley VOTE’s current effort is successful, other enclaves in Los Angeles would launch their own campaigns to break away. Among the areas that might contemplate civic independence: San Pedro, Eagle Rock, Venice and West Los Angeles.


For Valley secession to pass, advocates would first need to gather 135,000 signatures of registered voters in the Valley to study the idea, then win a majority of both city and Valley voters to go ahead with secession.

Close hopes that pockets of voters in each of the other potential splinter areas would join the Valley in supporting a municipal breakup, giving the idea the support it needs to prevail.

But breaking up Los Angeles is one thing. Close rejects the notion that secessionism, once in the air, would then fragment the new city in the Valley.

Compared to secession of the entire San Fernando Valley, it would be much easier for Sherman Oaks, Reseda or any other area to launch a drive for cityhood, because each would only need a few thousand signatures. But it hasn’t happened, and there are no signs that it might, Close said.

The reason is simple, Close said. No one area of the Valley has the rich mix of business and residential areas necessary to provide the steady tax base a city needs to thrive, he said.

“It would be tough for Sherman Oaks to become a city because it’s mostly residential, and doesn’t have a strong industrial base,” said Close, who also serves as president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. “The Valley is a self-contained area, and has a diverse economic and ethnic makeup--all the components you need for a city. It’s a perfect combination.”


Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this story.