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Battle Over Breakup Enters Final Hours

Times Staff Writers

With just three days to go before voters decide whether to break up Los Angeles, the anti-secession campaign led by Mayor James K. Hahn swarmed the San Fernando Valley with more than 1,000 precinct walkers Saturday, while a few dozen separatists staged a rally in Hollywood.

It was a stark reflection of the lopsided forces battling over the future shape of the nation’s second-largest city. Fortified by $6 million in contributions from developers, unions and others, Hahn’s L.A. United campaign has dominated the debate with blunt warnings that a split could increase taxes and deplete public services.

Other anti-secession efforts spearheaded by council members and union leaders raked in an additional $1 million for the campaigns to keep Los Angeles together.

“We have put together a broad coalition who love this city and want to save this city,” Hahn said at a boisterous San Fernando rally jammed with local politicians and about 600 electricians, sanitation workers and other union members. “That’s why we are going to be able to win on election day.”

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Another 200 workers showed up at the union hall later to pick up lists of union households to visit. As the workers fanned out across the Valley, the mayor headed to another rally at the Encino headquarters of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley. The Democrats dispatched about 300 volunteers to urge people to reject secession.

A few miles away in Sherman Oaks, secessionists threw a vintage car parade, honking horns and waving signs from three Model-T Fords and a Mustang convertible.

A handful of female candidates seeking council seats in the proposed Valley city led the charge over the Cahuenga Pass and into Hollywood, where they joined a pro-secession women’s rally.

“We’re all candidates, God love us!” Terry Stone, a candidate in the proposed 10th Valley council district, shouted to a man sitting outside a fast-food restaurant. “Let our people go!”

The Hollywood rally drew about 35 people. Acknowledging they were up against powerful opponents, speakers exhorted fellow activists to press ahead in the final days of the campaign.

“This is our chance to make our neighborhoods our own,” shouted Hollywood secessionist Missy Kelly. “Call your neighbors! Call your friends! Get out the vote!”

Across the city in Woodland Hills, one of the leading candidates for Valley mayor juggled two phones as he kept up a steady patter of cold calls urging strangers to vote for him.

“I need your vote,” Mel Wilson told one voter. “We have a very important election coming up.”

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It was the end game in a campaign that catapulted the secession proposals from vague threats -- generally dismissed by City Hall -- into the voting booth.

Simply getting secession onto Tuesday’s ballot was a hard-won achievement for the separatists. Since then, however, their five-month campaign has been crippled by meager fund-raising, leadership woes, a lack of volunteers and a failure to attract well-known candidates to run for office.

Valley and Hollywood separatists have raised a combined $1.7 million, limiting their message to cable television networks while their opponents blanket the airwaves with ads branding secession “a gamble that’s not worth taking.”

A recent Times Poll of likely voters found overwhelming opposition citywide to both breakup proposals. Valley residents were more closely divided, however, with likely voters in the East Valley opposing the breakup even as those in the West Valley were split on the prospect.

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Throughout the campaign, Hahn and his allies have tried to raise doubts on secession’s impact in a number of areas, notably public safety and finances: Would taxes go up? Could services be slashed? What about police and fire protection in the event of an earthquake?

Secessionists brush off such concerns as “scare tactics” from city leaders desperate to stay in power. They insist a smaller city would trim the fat from a bloated L.A. government, providing better services for a cheaper price.

Communicating that message to a city of 3.7 million people has been difficult, however. Valley secessionists have spent little time or money reaching out to residents south of Mulholland Drive, the dividing line between the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, millionaire nightclub owner Gene La Pietra has almost single-handedly bankrolled the breakup bid -- but even he balked at the cost of running ads on broadcast TV stations.

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To win, secession needs a majority vote in the breakaway areas and citywide. Separatists are banking on a large turnout of pro-cityhood voters in the Valley -- which generally has a high turnout -- to carry the election citywide.

Roxy Tuetken, a retired teacher from Studio City who supports Valley independence, went looking for those voters Saturday morning in a leafy neighborhood near her home.

“Hello!” she called over a fence to one man while waving a pro-secession pamphlet in the air. “I’m here just to encourage you to vote for secession on Tuesday.” “I’m against it,” the man replied tersely. The dog at his feet began to growl.

Tuetken, a 68-year-old volunteer who hasn’t walked precincts since Ronald Reagan ran for governor, marched off to the next house. “I think people are scared,” she said, noting that some of her friends oppose secession because they fear higher taxes or the loss of rent-control laws. “You know, it takes a certain amount of courage to go into the unknown.”

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The mayor also hit the streets Saturday, trooping door-to-door with a few union members in Valley Village. One voter told Hahn he planned to vote for secession because he believes City Hall has mistreated the Valley.

“My biggest objection is I’m not seeing tax dollars spent proportionally in the Valley,” Rees Barr, an engineer, told the mayor.

Tuesday’s election comes after decades of political skirmishing between Valley activists and downtown leaders. Ever since the region joined Los Angeles in 1915 to gain access to water, some Valley dwellers have grumbled about what they perceived as inadequate public services from a distant City Hall.

In the latest campaign, led by the secession group Valley VOTE, separatists collected signatures from 25% of the Valley’s registered voters to trigger a study of a breakup. After a two-year review, the Local Agency Formation Commission concluded that Valley and Hollywood cities could be financially viable without hurting the rest of Los Angeles, clearing the way for a citywide vote.

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If approved by voters, a Valley city would be born on July 1, 2003, as the nation’s sixth-largest. An elected mayor and 14 city council members would oversee a $1.2-billion budget and a sprawling city of 1.35 million people.

A Hollywood city would begin with a $183-million budget. Home to 184,000 residents, it would be run by five at-large council members who would choose a mayor from their ranks.

Los Angeles would lose a third of its residents and nearly half its land in the breakup. It would become the nation’s third-largest city, behind New York and Chicago. To shield what remained of L.A. from financial harm, the Valley would have to pay $127 million the first year. Hollywood would owe L.A. $21.3 million. These so-called alimony payments would drop 5% annually over 20 years.

In a confusing bit of math difficult for many voters to follow, the alimony payments -- while they may seem like money snatched from the Valley and Hollywood’s pockets -- actually represent cash those taxpayers already send downtown beyond what those areas receive in services. Because the payments would decline over time, secession leaders say they will actually be plugging the hole.

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The Valley, for instance, would get to keep $1.3 billion over 20 years -- money that otherwise would flow to other parts of Los Angeles.

LAFCO found that the new cities would have sufficient reserves for at least three years. They would initially contract with Los Angeles for nearly all municipal services, but eventually they could form their own agencies, hire employees and renegotiate union contracts.

Saturday, on the streets of Valley Village, Hahn argued against that prospect. He told residents, “I love the Valley and I don’t want to lose you.”

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Times staff writers Kristina Sauerwein and Sharon Bernstein contributed to this report.


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