Valley Cityhood Group Expects to Meet Petition Goal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After working to change a law in Sacramento last year and gathering 200,000 signatures from sympathetic residents by last week's deadline, the San Fernando Valley activists hoping to break away from Los Angeles and form the nation's sixth-largest city say they are well on their way to that goal.

"People told us we'd never get this far, so this is a tremendous milestone for us," said Jeff Brain, president of Valley VOTE, the group spearheading the cityhood drive. "To get signatures from nearly 40% of the Valley's voters shows everyone that we're not just a handful of people."

Now that several other communities--Eagle Rock, San Pedro, Wilmington, Westchester and Playa del Rey--are engaged in similar cityhood petition drives, the Valley activists argue that the secession drumbeat is growing too loud for anyone to ignore. Petitions are already being circulated in San Pedro-Wilmington and Eagle Rock, while activists in Westchester-Playa del Rey registered to do so last week.

Thanks to assistance from paid petitioners and emergency legislation that allowed them to canvass an extra 90 days, the Valley activists appear likely to meet the requirement of 135,000 signatures, or 25% of the area's registered voters, needed to spur a secession study.

The study is the final step before the county could place the issue before voters, which could come as soon as 2000. For the Valley to become a city, a majority of residents both in the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles would have to support the cityhood measure.

Following passage of a bill by Assembly members Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) and Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), the City Council can no longer veto a secession drive, removing a restriction used by Los Angeles leaders to kill a similar Valley cityhood movement two decades ago.

Huge obstacles still loom--notably the issue of who will pay to have the signatures verified, which could cost as much as $270,000; who would pay for the study, expected to run at least $1 million; and most importantly, whether the study concludes Valley cityhood is economically viable.

But with the weight of so many signatures behind them, and similar efforts underway in other areas, the activists believe that now they will be taken much more seriously by politicians and community leaders throughout Los Angeles--even those who openly despise the idea of secession.

"My crystal ball says that by the time this is on the ballot, there could be as many as five to 10 areas looking to do the same thing," said Valley VOTE chair Richard Close, the longtime president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. "We already know about Eagle Rock, San Pedro and Wilmington. I could see Pacific Palisades and Hollywood joining."

Of course, many city leaders believe secession is a terribly divisive and unrealistic idea, and that the Valley secession study will point out the drawbacks of such a large-scale municipal divorce. Mayor Richard Riordan and many others point to revision of the city charter as a better way to address feelings of disenfranchisement.

"If all these people are serious about secession, there's not much that's going to be left of the city of Los Angeles," quipped Council President John Ferraro. "The [Los Angeles] Times building and City Hall is all that's going to be left.

"They seem to be under the impression that if they formed their own city, every problem would be solved," he said. "Well, I could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, too."

But the Valley activists insist secession can take place without hurting any part of Los Angeles, and that a Valley city would be able to provide better government services for the 1.6-million residents who live in the suburb's sprawling housing tracts. They are shifting their focus to the study itself, and to discussing the nuts and bolts of how a Valley city could be assembled.

Already, it appears certain that Valley VOTE will play a major role in how a study would be conducted. The Local Agency Formation Commission, the nine-member panel that oversees the so-called detachment proceedings, voted last week to pursue a "cooperative process" whereby representatives for Los Angeles and Valley VOTE would divide the work. Under the still-preliminary plan, approved in part to save money, the formation commission would act as facilitator, settling issues that could not be decided by the two parties.

To that end, Valley VOTE is planning to break up into a series of subcommittees to flesh out how secession could work. A public safety committee will look at provision of police and fire services, for example, while a local government committee will formulate the Valley city's political and bureaucratic structure.

As it enters this new stage of the campaign, some observers believe Valley VOTE will encounter problems due to what they see as the group's ambivalent position on secession.

From the outset, Valley VOTE, which stands for Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, has insisted it does not advocate secession, but merely wants to study the possibility of splitting up with Los Angeles.

The group continues to cling to that position despite Close likening its campaign to a football game, with an election coming in the fourth quarter, and invitations to a Dec. 6 fund-raiser that depict a stork and newborn child, trumpeting "what may become the birth of the sixth-largest city in America."

"They're caught in a box, a box of their own making, because they have not been advocating secession from the beginning," said former U.S. Rep Bobbi Fiedler, a strong secession advocate who broke ranks with the leaders of Valley VOTE over the movement's direction. "They're going to come across as hypocritical now."

Though Valley VOTE has been meeting for years with community leaders around the city, it also plans to step up its public relations efforts in coming months. The strategy is partly to combat what it feels are untrue claims that secession will harm poorer areas of the city, but also to strengthen existing bonds--particularly in areas considering secession drives of their own.

The activists make no secret of the fact their goal is to see as many secession drives as possible on the same ballot as theirs, arguing that such a unified approach would be the best chance for all to achieve independence from Los Angeles.

Under state law, the secession activists do not have to disclose their financial contributors until a cityhood measure makes the ballot, and they have not done so. But Valley VOTE leaders say they have spent less than $2 per signature, or $400,000, including legal fees and other costs.

"We haven't released our contributors because we didn't want to deal with the pundits sizing us up based on how much money we had," Brain said, vowing to release the information in the coming months.

"If people had known how much we had, they would have said we had no chance."

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