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Valley Secession Drive Enters Crucial Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Sharp and Alvin Green entered a Northridge pharmacy last week to pick up prescriptions and left debating the merits of a political secession of the San Fernando Valley.

That’s because the two men entered the Northridge Pharmacy & Gift Gallery, where owner Barry Pascal is helping to push the secession process forward by collecting signatures on petitions.

“This is the most important thing to happen in the San Fernando Valley since the Northridge earthquake,” Pascal said.

Pascal’s store and nearly two dozen other Valley businesses are part of the home-stretch effort to complete a petition drive that if successful would represent the first step toward breaking up the nation’s second-largest city.

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But the drive suffered a severe blow last weekend when petitioners for Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment (VOTE) were illegally barred from collecting signatures at the Van Nuys Aviation Expo.

The group estimates that the event--which attracted more than 225,000 people--could have netted 15,000 signatures.

The setback comes at a crucial time for the group, which needs to collect the signatures of 135,000 eligible Valley voters by Aug. 27. With more than two-thirds of the petition drive completed, the group estimates it has collected nearly 100,000 signatures. But to ensure enough valid signatures, the group wants to turn in between 180,000 and 200,000.

Early in the petition drive, Valley VOTE leaders predicted that as many as 4,000 volunteers would circulate the petitions. They estimate that as few as 400 volunteers have been involved so far.

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Although it appears the drive is behind schedule, Valley VOTE leaders insist they will succeed under an accelerated campaign with the help of merchants such as Pascal.

“The lost opportunity is severely damaging and can’t be replaced,” said Valley VOTE Treasurer Bruce Bialosky, referring to the air show. “But I personally believe that we will collect enough signatures regardless of what happens.”

Airport officials are investigating why Van Nuys Airport police and security officers barred the volunteers from the facility July 18 and 19. The Los Angeles City Council and the city attorney requested the investigation in response to complaints from Valley VOTE. Local and national political leaders also have called for an investigation, and the American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the city’s actions.

Leaders of Valley VOTE suspect a conspiracy orchestrated by high-ranking city officials who oppose a Valley secession.

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“This was not a rogue police officer, this was a concerted effort,” said Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE.

The petition drive is the first step toward breaking off the Valley from the city of Los Angeles to form a separate city--an outcome that has been vehemently opposed by Mayor Richard Riordan and other city officials.

Airport officials say there was no conspiracy.

They said a review of the incident shows it was caused by a miscommunication between airport officials and security officers who may have thought the group was attempting to set up an illegal booth.

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“I don’t think there was anything nefarious,” said John Driscoll, manager of the Department of Airports.

Whatever was behind the incident, Valley VOTE leaders are now planning to double their efforts to overcome the setback.

Valley VOTE President Jeff Brain said the group plans to launch additional mailings to supporters and Valley leaders to increase the pace of the petition drive.

“We are putting out letters to those who have collected signatures to collect more,” Brain said.

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The petition drive is being staffed by volunteers as well as workers for Kimball Petition Management of Westlake Village, which was hired by Valley VOTE to improve the group’s chances.

Close believes support is growing from people who are upset by what occurred at Van Nuys Airport last week.

“I am hopeful that the reaction will be so much outrage that it will be helping us,” he said. “But in the short term, it was a major loss.”

Among the businesses helping Valley VOTE are five branches of American Pacific State Bank, seven Kentucky Fried Chicken stores and five Jiffy Lube shops.

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At Pascal’s Northridge Pharmacy & Gift Gallery in Northridge, most of the customers have been pleased to sign the petition, Pascal said. He estimates the store has helped collect nearly 2,000 signatures.

Pascal said he strongly supports a Valley secession study because he fears Valley residents will be forever ignored by City Hall if the petition drive fails.

“Nobody is going to take us seriously if we don’t get those signatures,” he said.

During a recent morning at the pharmacy, the petition sparked a lively discussion between Pascal and Sharp and Green, both of Northridge.

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“I’m against breaking up the city,” said Sharp.

He said secession would rob the Valley of the political influence that comes with being part of a large city.

Green said a secession would increase taxes and other costs to Valley residents for police, fire and other municipal services.

“Everything that it takes to run a city, we are going to have to pay for,” Green said.

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But Pascal argued that the petition simply calls for the Local Agency Formation Commission--an independent, appointed panel--to study the feasibility of a secession.

“We are not saying we should secede,” Pascal said. “We are just saying we should study it.”

After a few minutes, Pascal convinced Green to sign the petition. Sharp refused but did not leave the store angry.

“We’ve never had a negative business reaction over the petition,” Pascal said, “because everybody understands that we are focused on what is best for the Valley.”

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