A year ago, volunteers and paid petition gatherers were fanning out across the San Fernando Valley in an attempt to collect 200,000 signatures that would trigger a study to see if Valley cityhood is viable.
At that time, there was concern about getting enough signers, and worries that even if the signatures were gathered, money to pay for the study could be in short supply.
Those were uncertain times for Valley VOTE, the organization behind the effort to secure a secession study.
Today, the signatures have been gathered and verified, financing has been all but secured, and Valley VOTE Chairman Richard Close exudes confidence. He is personally four-square behind secession, believes it can be a "revenue neutral" separation, thinks it can be on the ballot by 2002 and predicts it will pass.
The Times recently talked to Close about the cityhood movement, how it was affected by charter reform and how he views its future.
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Question: Charter reform struck a responsive chord with the voters. Were you surprised it passed by such a large margin?
Answer: I left on vacation the day of the election and the collective wisdom at the time was that it was probably going to fail. Then I went online in Copenhagen and saw that it won [with] 60% [of the vote]. I was very surprised.
I thought it was going to lose because it didn't offer that much. There just wasn't the sizzle, the appeal to it. There were issues being raised about costs. So I thought it was compromised.
It was better than what we had. That's why I supported it. But I didn't really see a strong appeal that would overcome the issues and questions being raised. To see it pass [with] 60% was shocking. I think the reason is that people want change. This may not have been as much change as they would like. But they want change. I think it signifies the growing frustration with city government, both in the Valley and outside.
Q. So you think its passage validates Valley VOTE's efforts?
A. Yes. One of the reasons charter reform even started was because of the Valley cityhood efforts. And the charter discussion reinforced that there was a problem that needs to be solved. I mean if there's no problem, then we don't need charter reform, we don't need cityhood. But there are problems.
Q. Will charter reform be all that was promised? Do you think council members will be responsive in implementing it?
A. I think that implementation will be slow and disappointing. The key is in the details of the implementation. When most of the City Council members were opposed to the charter, one would suspect, rightly so in my opinion, that the implementation will be nonexistent in many cases. This will lead to greater frustration and will further propel the issue of cityhood.
Q. What about the neighborhood council concept? That was one of the more popular aspects of charter reform.
A. I think there's also going to be a problem with that because, first of all, you have the issue of how quickly they're going to move ahead.
Number two, you have the issue of what authority they will have. No City Council member wants to be a pawn or a puppet of a neighborhood council. Most of them believe they were elected because they know what's best for the community, and they want to retain their power to make the decisions rather than delegating that power to a neighborhood council.
So what's going to happen, I believe, is that either we're going to have council people who do not follow the recommendations of their neighborhood councils, thereby creating more frustration, or we will have what we probably should have, which are neighborhood councils with some authority.
However, we have to look at the composition of who's going to be on the councils. They could be controlled by people who do not live in the area and who will be imposing decisions on the communities that are adverse. Then, you're going to find even more frustration. For instance, you have businesspeople who live outside the area. So you can have people who live in San Marino deciding what should be built in Sherman Oaks. These people then go home at night and the problems that may be created are left with the local residents to deal with.
Q. Moving on to the LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) study, the sniping has already begun over the exchange of information. And the city has criticized you for wanting to delay talk about dividing up major agencies such as the Department of Water and Power until after a secession vote.
A. My belief is that the city is telling LAFCO, "We're only going to give you what's readily available and in its existing format. We're not going to do anything to assist in the preparation of this report." Which to me is a form of stonewalling by the city.
If, for instance, LAFCO asks for a list of fire stations located within the San Fernando Valley, I interpret the city position as being, "Well, unless we have a document entitled 'Fire Stations Within the San Fernando Valley,' we're going to respond, 'Not available,' even though we have a list and it could be easily determined. So I think that it's a stonewall. And what the city intends to do is prolong the process, which I think is bad for the city and bad for the Valley and just bad public policy.
As far as the DWP and like agencies are concerned, Valley VOTE had suggested that we have a framework of dividing up the departments. Let's have a secession vote. If it passes, then before we implement the division of departments, let's have a three-year period to see if the parties can work out a joint powers agreement to co-own the DWP facilities. We thought that would be less destructive south of Mulholland, less destructive to the public employee unions involved, less destructive to the bondholders.
Q. How can LAFCO determine if a situation is "revenue neutral" if they don't know how things are going to be divided up?
A. We believe that the best process is a joint powers agreement. But the lawyers are saying that cannot be proposed. LAFCO can't say as part of the breakup: "We're going to have a joint powers agreement between L.A. city and the Valley." So, if it can't be imposed, then LAFCO will have to come forward with their plan, for instance, to divide up the Department of Water and Power.
Our concept went like this: Let's assume the election is in November of 2000. Thirty days later, theoretically, the Valley becomes a new city. Instead of having December of 2000 as the date for the implementation of the breakup, let's continue to operate it under co-ownership and let the parties try to put together a co-owners' arrangement.
It was an idea. A suggestion. If L.A. says, "No, we're not interested, so there," LAFCO should continue ahead. We think we have a better idea, a better approach. If the city, for whatever reason, disagrees, then so be it. We'll do it the normal way.
Q. The city is claiming that they have no idea how to determine the worth of some properties such as parks or Ventura Boulevard.
A. Clearly, there is no need, no requirement to value what the dirt of Ventura Boulevard or Wilshire Boulevard is worth. Those are not the assets being valued. I think it's almost inflammatory to say, "Well, how are we going to value Ventura Boulevard?" When West Hollywood became a city, no one was seriously talking about how do you value Santa Monica Boulevard. So these are nonissues that are being used by the city to make a complicated process seem virtually impossible. It's not that complicated.
Q. The City Council has established a committee to oversee the release of data to LAFCO. Do you think that's a good idea?
A. I'm not clear as to what the goal is of that committee. If the goal is to filter the information that is made public, that is illegal. If the purpose is to make sure that comprehensive information is made available to LAFCO and the public on a timely basis, then it's beneficial.
Q. Do you think it's necessary? Wouldn't you rather see the city just make that information available to LAFCO without going through some committee somewhere?
A. It depends. Someone is going to be in charge. There are some people who are concerned that a bureaucrat will take charge of the process and just slow it down and put aside documents that will hurt or make the city look bad. And therefore they believe that you need a committee of publicly elected officials to make sure that doesn't happen.
Valley VOTE indicated our concern that certain bureaucrats would filter the information and we felt there should be an approach taken by the City Council to make sure that does not happen. Now, some people have viewed the committee as another form of filtration. I don't know because the committee hasn't done anything.
Q. One of the controversies surrounding Valley VOTE is its refusal to disclose its financial backers. Do you see disclosure happening at some point?
A. I think a majority of the people at Valley VOTE feel that this is a nonissue. I mean, let the information become known. However, some people were told that they could give to the organization but their names would not be made public so they didn't have to fear retaliation. So what we'd have to do is go back to those people and ask for their permission.
When David Fleming and Bert Boeckmann released their own names as financial backers of Valley VOTE, there were a couple city councilmen who called upon them to resign from the city commissions on which they served, saying, "How could anyone contribute to this effort while sitting on a city commission?"
So it's obviously a sensitive issue to people who do business with the city or sit on commissions. They're afraid they're going to be adversely affected. But I think the only issue is, who wants this information made public and why? Is it to enable these people to put pressure on the contributors not to give any more money? My personal opinion is [to] release all the names, and if a person is really concerned about being hurt in the process, give them their money back. There's nothing to hide, so make it public as long as the people are not going to be hurt in the process.
Q. Some people have expressed an opinion that, even following the LAFCO study, the issue will be litigated for years to come. Do you agree?
A. I see very little litigation, for the following reasons.
First of all, actions of LAFCO are what you'd call legislative. They're not judicatory. Legislative actions are very difficult to overturn. You have to prove almost arbitrary action by the body. So it's going to be very difficult to overturn LAFCO's decisions. Number two, there will be a backlash if litigation occurs prior to a public vote that will solidify the support of cityhood. After a vote, it's highly unlikely that an injunction would be put into effect. And if the question is whether L.A. city got its fair share, then the court can award what's called alimony. If there's litigation after the vote, the court in all probability will just let it proceed and reward whatever damages are necessary in the court's opinion.
So, will there be litigation? Not as much as most people predict. Will it stop the process? No. Will it empower the process? Sure, it's a possibility. But I don't think it'll have an effect on the ultimate outcome, which will be a separate city.
Q. Can you win a secession vote?
A. I think so. I think that we'll be able to demonstrate, not only the value and benefit for the San Fernando Valley, but also for the people in the other portions of the city. I think everyone will benefit by having two stronger cities rather than the one existing city.
Q. There's going to be no end of people who'll want to be mayor of this city or serve on its city council. Will all this campaigning obscure the main issue on the ballot, which is cityhood?
A. When it comes to the election, you're going to have three items on the Valley ballot. Number one, should the Valley become a separate city, yes or no? If yes, who should be the city council person for Sherman Oaks or Chatsworth or whatever? Pick the person. Three, which name should be selected for the new city? Pick one of the five.
We want everyone to focus on the most important issue, which is cityhood. But also you're going to have throughout the Valley, active campaigns, people saying, "My name is Joe Smith. Elect me to the City Council." So, you have all these people out there campaigning. What will probably be talked about the most is the name.
Jokingly, the best name I've heard, is, so far, North Beverly Hills.
Q. North Beverly Hills?
A. Everybody wants to live in Beverly Hills.