Ron Kaye: The civic advantage of coalescence

Do you ever wonder why the subway ends in North Hollywood instead of turning east to Burbank and Glendale? Or why the Gold Line turns right when it gets to Pasadena? Or why the Westside is getting light rail and a subway extension while you get nothing?

Politically speaking, size matters, so smaller cities don't — unless they act like the 31 cities in the San Gabriel Valley. In 1994 they formed the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments to end their self-destructive squabbling and allow their voices to be heard despite the deafening roar of the 800-pound gorilla to the west, the city of Los Angeles.

It took a long time to get the cities and their three county supervisors to begin to collaborate for the good of the region, but working together has gotten results.

“We spent a lot of time building consensus and developing a common vision,” said Nick Conway, executive director of the SGVCOG for the last 16 years.

“Now we have two light rails, the most progress in light rail of anywhere in the county, freeway improvements, open space and conservancy. Had it not been for the COG, we could not have been able to band together and get those projects and become the overarching organization that respects local control, encourages cooperation and advocates for the common good.”

So who speaks for you? Who is advocating for your fair share of the billions of mass-transit dollars you are contributing to?

Formed last year, the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments could become the vehicle for improving the quality of life for the two million people who live in the L.A. portion of the valley and in the cities of San Fernando, Burbank and Glendale and Santa Clarita.

Despite the fact that most of Southern California has used these quasi-government COGs to get their interests served, the curse of the valley is most of it is in the 800-pound-gorilla city whose political leaders have long used it as a cash cow and who have rarely acted on its behalf.

Just to get the COG off the ground, the four smaller cities had to agree to pay $10,000 each in annual dues, give seven L.A. City Council members voting rights while only collecting $10,000 from L.A. and promise that no action can be taken without a unanimous vote. County Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky also each get a vote but only pay dues of $30,000 in total, even though they each supervisor pays that amount in other COGs.

Just how tepid support for the COG is from L.A. and the supervisors was painfully clear at the quarterly meeting earlier this month.

The smaller cities were represented by elected officials, but the supervisors sent surrogates. Only one L.A. council member, Dennis Zine, sat through the whole meeting. Another left early, two others sent surrogates and the rest couldn't be bothered.

COG Executive Director Robert Scott, a longtime valley civic leader, tried to get support to eliminate the unanimous vote requirement and to get the supervisors and L.A. council members to put up more money so consultants could be hired to start the organization on the road to becoming effective.

He was met with total resistance. Out of the question, said the supervisors' surrogates.

“I don't think the city would be able to come up with $10,000 for each district with what we have facing us economically,” said Zine, ignoring the fact that the supervisors and L.A. council members have millions of dollars in discretionary funds at their disposal.

Think about it: This is the great hope to get a fair share of those billions of transit dollars going to the Westside, South L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley, and officials don't care enough to put up a bit of seed money or to attend a meeting every three months.

In the San Gabriel Valley, Conway has been able to parlay $750,000 in dues into a $4 million annual budget supported by grants that allow the COG to develop detailed plans and present a unified front.

Like Scott, Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian — who is chairman of the COG — is undeterred by the resistance.

“We're in our honeymoon period still,” he said. “With all the cities just getting used to be at the same table together, we're hopefully starting to build some trust so we can move on and get past the totally L.A.-centric way of thinking.”

Conway offered some simple advice based on his own experience: “Pick an issue and everyone work hard on it together.”

The issue is clear enough to everyone involved: Connect Pasadena through Glendale and Burbank to the subway and Orange Line busway in North Hollywood.

There is money left over from extending the busway north to Chatsworth and pressure is building to make permanent the 30-year transportation sales tax approved as Measure R in 2008.

As with Measure R, the valley region likely will get precious little of those billions of dollars unless people wake up and demand their fair share.

RON KAYE can be reached at

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