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Reform Is a Better Option

This weekend, San Fernando Valley residents have the opportunity to begin divorce proceedings against the city of Los Angeles. Outside grocery stores and shopping malls--and later this week outside polling places--volunteers for Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, or VOTE, hope to collect tens of thousands of signatures on a petition that takes the first small step in the complicated and costly march toward secession.

It’s easy to understand the visceral appeal of breaking away from Los Angeles and creating a new city government serving just the San Fernando Valley. As it stands, Los Angeles is the nation’s second-largest city. Its 15 City Council members represent roughly 230,000 residents each. Even under ideal conditions, managing a city as big and diverse as Los Angeles would be a Herculean task. From Chatsworth to San Pedro, residents feel left out of the decision-making process, cheated by tax money that seems never to make it back to their neighborhoods, angered by the petty politics that pass for governance downtown.

At the same time, residents look just across the city limits to places such as Burbank and Simi Valley, Calabasas and Culver City and see smaller governments that deliver more services, such as cops and street cleaning, for less money, places where City Council members serve part-time for little pay and still return constituent phone calls. In that context, the siren song of secession is particularly appealing to residents tired of having their voices lost in the throngs that vie for attention and money in City Hall.

Why not just go it alone?

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It’s not that simple.

In fact, the word “secession” appears nowhere on the petition, which VOTE began circulating Saturday and is scheduled to continue through the summer. Instead, voters are treated to the bureaucratic language dictated by state law, which describes the process as a simultaneous detachment and incorporation. Regardless of the words, the intent is the same: The dismemberment of Los Angeles. But it won’t happen like that.

The petition launches only the first phase of secession--a comprehensive study by the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, to determine whether the Valley and Los Angeles could survive as separate cities without undue hardship. Expected to cost at least $1 million and take at least a year, the study would look at everything from taxes to water rights and would establish claims and responsibilities. For instance, it would determine how the benefits and obligations of the city’s sewer system would be divided between the old and the new city. For secession to work, the study would have to show that the new city would not unduly harm the old city.

Who defines what “unduly” means? The politicians who control LAFCO’s board. Only after the study passes muster with them--and, inevitably, the courts--would secession come before voters across the city. A majority in both the Valley and the rest of the city would have to approve secession for the split to take place. Even if everything goes according to the secessionists’ plans, a vote wouldn’t take place until well into the next decade--after millions of dollars had been spent on consultants, lobbyists and lawyers.

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What’s the likely result? Surprisingly little. At the end of this divisive and expensive process, Valley residents could look forward to living in the nation’s sixth-largest city--rather than the second-largest. The new city would still bear many of the financial obligations of Los Angeles. And because of the way state law is written, residents could look forward to even less representation than they get now. A new Valley municipality would have to incorporate as a so-called general law city with just five City Council members--or roughly one for every 280,000 residents. Suddenly, the so-called benefits of secession don’t seem quite so dramatic.

VOTE, the group pushing this vision for the Valley, claims it has no official position on secession, that it favors the preliminary study as an accounting of what Valley residents pay for and what they get back. It’s difficult to believe VOTE’s official line, particularly because the group’s literature over the past six months has trumpeted the benefits of Valley cityhood. And for a group that complains about secretive deals in City Hall, VOTE has so far refused to reveal how it pays its bills. So it would seem that Valley residents have the choice of lending their support to a secretive group with contradictory messages or standing by and letting a dysfunctional government continue to run Los Angeles.

But there’s another, better option. Even as volunteers ask voters to sign secession petitions that really aren’t about secession, two panels are working to reform municipal government. Both an elected and an appointed charter reform commission aim to rewrite the antiquated, cumbersome document that dictates how Los Angeles is governed. The two panels are grappling with important issues such as the size of the City Council, the power of department heads, the role of neighborhood councils--structural changes that have the potential to give residents more of a say in how their city operates.

To their credit, secession advocates helped create these two panels. Their breakaway threats scared politicians into action. Even some charter reform advocates argue that the effort will succeed only if secessionists keep the pressure on City Hall. Maybe so. But charter reform has the best chance of implementation if secessionists put their drive in abeyance until voters have a chance to get a look at how a new Los Angeles government might operate.

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Meantime, the bright, dedicated secessionists who claim they only want better government ought to participate in an effort that actually has some hope of bringing it about. The same goes for residents tempted to sign VOTE’s petition.

There are better ways to save a city than by destroying it.


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