Civic Jabberwocky

The deeper advocates of breaking apart Los Angeles slide down the rabbit hole, the curiouser and curiouser things seem to get. The latest snag in the drive to split the San Fernando Valley from the rest of the city: Seems the new municipality would have to incorporate as a so-called general law city run by a council of five. Why should that matter? Such an arrangement would spread elected officials even thinner than they are now--essentially wiping out secession's purported benefit of better representation.

Secession supporters have long argued that Los Angeles residents get short shrift from their 15 elected representatives on the City Council. We agree. It's tough to argue that council members representing the interests of, on average, 232,000 people each can do a very good job of it. Anyone who's paid a visit to City Hall knows it feels a lot like Wonderland. But some of the fixes proposed by secessionists seem as nonsensical as anything bandied about at the Hatter's mad tea party.

The solution, according to secessionists, is to split the city and set up new councils representing fewer people. State law, however, would require the new Valley government to form initially as a general law city with five council members. So if the Valley split along the lines now advocated by groups like Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, each council member would represent 240,000 people--8,000 more than under the current dysfunctional structure. Suddenly, the promise of a more responsive council starts to disappear like a cloud of the caterpillar's smoke.

Of course, solutions exist. If secession leaders get their way and a new council is formed, council members could vote to increase the size of the council to nine members. So the new government would be reorganized immediately after formation. Or secession advocates shooting for a public vote in 2000 could place a new charter on the same ballot. That would require a change in the state law, which now only permits elected bodies to put new charters before voters. Or finally, a newly elected Valley council could immediately launch efforts to draft and pass a new city charter.

If that last idea sounds familiar, it's because two commissions--one elected and one appointed--already are working diligently to draft a new charter for the city of Los Angeles. The goal is to have a new charter before voters in 1999. Ideally it would tame Los Angeles' complicated bureaucracy and expand the voices of residents in the affairs of a truly great city. Local government must improve. That much is clear. But a rational, careful revamping of the current system is a far more sensible treatment for an ailing city than simply taking a big swig from the medicine bottle offered by secessionists. As Alice learned, smaller is not always better.

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