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A Victory for Backers of Valley Secession Study

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a victory for San Fernando Valley activists, county lawyers concluded Wednesday that only a small sample of the signatures required for a secession study need to be authenticated, potentially saving sponsors more than $250,000.

But leaders of Valley VOTE, the group pushing for a study and possible vote on breaking away from Los Angeles, remained far from satisfied. They argued any charge to verify signatures would be unconstitutional --even if it’s only for 3% of the 200,000 signatures activists plan to turn in next month--and said the county should pick up the tab.

“The constitution said we have a right to petition the government for grievances,” Valley VOTE President Jeff Brain said. “It didn’t say we can petition the government--if we can afford it.”

Government agencies typically check only a random sampling of 3% or 5% of signatures in petition drives, and usually assume the cost of doing so.

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But officials with the Local Agency Formation Commission, the agency overseeing the process, argued secession is different. LAFCO Director Larry Calemine had suggested every signature would have to be counted because that is what LAFCO had done in the past when Malibu and other areas petitioned to incorporate.

County elections officials charge $1.36 for every signature checked--a fee that could easily grow to the hundreds of thousands in a large petition drive like the Valley’s.

Valley VOTE activists said while 3% of the signatures will be checked to begin with, the county may have to check all 200,000 if the random sample is not conclusive.

“This is an issue of fairness and equality,” said another Valley VOTE leader, Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. “Mayor Riordan’s charter reform measure, all state initiatives, they were not charged. Now you’re going to charge the Valley?”

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For the petitions to spur a secession study, 135,000 signatures--roughly 25% of registered Valley voters--must be valid. If the study is favorable, secession could be on the ballot as soon as 2000. For secession to occur, both a majority of voters in the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles would have to agree to it.

At a workshop Wednesday, members of the LAFCO board disagreed on who should pay. Failing to reach a decision, they vowed to take up the issue again next week.

“We have a policy, and that is that the applicant pays,” said LAFCO Chairman Thomas E. Jackson, a Huntington Park councilman. “We have to do that, unless we can get someone else to pay.”

Councilman Hal Bernson, however, disagreed, saying Valley members of the Board of Supervisors may want to ask their colleagues to waive the fee. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a LAFCO member, was not present Wednesday.

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James DiGiuseppe of Van Nuys, a retired Municipal Court judge who serves as LAFCO’s public member representing the Valley, said, “We’re asking the people to come up with a lot of money to petition their government. . . . I think we as a commission should say to the county, ‘It’s your obligation under law, you should pay for it.’ ”

LAFCO members also discussed how they plan to conduct the secession study if it indeed takes place. After discussing three options, members appeared to be leaning toward a “cooperative process” whereby both Los Angeles and Valley secession advocates submit data to LAFCO for review.

The board also discussed plans to establish a four-member subcommittee to work more closely on the secession study. Potential members include Bernson, Yaroslavsky, Larry Connelly of the Littlerock Irrigation District and Whittier businessman Henri Pellissier.

Both plans are expected to be formalized at next week’s meeting.

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