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Hearts of the City | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

The Incubating Egg

May 22, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

Breakup fever grips the city. The Valley threatens to march off on its own, becoming L.A.'s little Bosnia. The mayor is paralyzed.

For weeks we've heard this stuff almost daily. So here's our Culture Quiz on breakup fever: Where is the secession movement that drives this fever? Who are its local leaders? When has the movement sponsored rallies, raised money or otherwise campaigned in its favor?

The answers: nowhere, no one and never. Secession fever has no "movement" attached to it. It has no leaders. It has no activities associated with secession.

"Curious, isn't it?" says Larry Calemine. Calamine is the executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission, a board that holds crucial power over the creation of any new city. He would be among the first to hear from the secession leadership. So has he?

"I have not received one phone call from anyone promoting breakup," says Calemine.

In short, this fever is most peculiar. Thus far it has grown out of the unexpected success of Republican Assemblywoman Paula Boland's legislation in Sacramento that would authorize a vote on Valley secession. This bill narrowly won passage in the Assembly and awaits an uncertain future in the Senate. For the record, Ms. Boland has not said whether she favors the idea of secession herself, only that she favors the idea of a vote.

So what are we to make of this fever based on a non-movement with non-leaders? Plenty, I think. At its base, it represents the amazing power of an idea whose time seems right, especially if that idea touches on the continuing despair over government. Such ideas, initially at least, do not need movements. They need only offer the merest hope of a way out.

In L.A., the time seems right. Almost nowhere in this country, I would wager, has local government grown so removed from its citizens, so apparently irrelevant. I say "apparently" because City Hall actually has great power over our lives in L.A. We simply have no sense of its potency.

You can live your whole life in the Valley, never know the name of your council person, and never appear to suffer because of it. Unless you have business in the grimy palace of City Hall, it ceases to exist. Even our mayors, whether it be Bradley or Riordan, grow diffuse in the miasma, their images blurring.

Have you ever noticed, for example, that our police chiefs have always appeared as larger-than-life, passionate figures--just think of Ed Davis, Daryl Gates and Willie Williams--while our mayors seem hidden and undefined? Is this because we know what the police force does in this city, but we don't know what city government does?

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In many cases, I don't think we have a clue. People yearn for transparency in their government--the ability to see clearly what government does and how--but they rarely get it. Several years ago this newspaper ran a story about the decrepit state of the Los Angeles area's huge bus system. The buses belched smoke, they broke down, they posed various dangers to their passengers' well-being. Proposed solutions were complex and usually futile.

The story also noted that Santa Monica's buses had few of these problems. The manager of the Santa Monica system was asked why. It's because, he said, each morning he could walk through the city's only bus yard and check every bus in it. He was the boss, so when he found a problem, he ordered it fixed.

In other words, the Santa Monica system was transparent, L.A.'s system opaque. Since then, the buses have been absorbed in the even-larger MTA and the system grown more opaque yet.

Would the new city of San Fernando operate the same way as Santa Monica's bus system? We don't know, but that's the dream and the source of its power.

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And that's why Mayor Riordan and other politicians have been so wary of opposing this idea that has neither a movement nor a leader. You would think that opposing secession would amount to a slam-dunk decision for the mayor. After all, it's his ox that's getting gored, his city being dismembered. And, truth be told, any number of good arguments can be marshaled against the idea of breakup.

For example, a secession move would produce years of wrangling over infrastructure and finance with L.A. Affluent neighborhoods might choose to bail out of the new city. Without L.A., the Valley would have no reliable source of water. Etcetera.

But recent history has taught our politicians that rage does not listen to such arguments. It did not listen with Prop. 13 and it did not listen with term limits. Instead, the rage turned into a steamroller that mowed down every politician standing in its path.

So there it sits, this peculiar idea without visible means of support, scaring the daylights out of our leaders. They hunker down, waiting to see if another rough beast is going to come crawling out of California.

As for now, think of it as an egg, incubating. A pretty egg, all speckled. Getting warm in its nest out in the Valley.

Getting ready to hatch.

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