SACRAMENTO — In a dramatic turn of events, San Fernando Valley secession legislation that had been breezing though the Legislature with broad-based, bipartisan support was amended with "poison pill" changes Wednesday that could hamper its chances of passage.
The most damaging amendment added, according to proponents of the bill, would eliminate for all cities statewide the current power of city councils to veto secession moves. As had been originally proposed, the legislation would have only eliminated the City Council veto over secessions from Los Angeles.
Making the change apply statewide is considered deadly to the bill because some legislators who have backed the measure because it applied only to Los Angeles are expected to change their minds if the legislation applies to their own cities.
"It's a poison pill," said North Hills homeowner leader Harry Coleman, who was part of a local delegation that journeyed to Sacramento for a Local Government Committee hearing Wednesday.
The moving force behind the amendment was the newest member of the Local Government Committee, state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who was appointed Monday by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward.)
Lockyer had earlier urged the committee to adopt the change, writing in a letter to committee members that "if the council veto is indefensible in Los Angeles, fairness suggests that it is indefensible as statewide policy," Lockyer wrote. "I hope you will consider this in your deliberations on any bill dealing with a major area detaching and incorporating as a city."
Polanco echoed that argument in Wednesday's debate. "If this is, members, something we believe in, it should apply . . . to San Francisco, to your cities," he said.
Polanco has been a key foe of secession legislation for the past two years. Lockyer's decision to appoint him to the committee was seen by secession advocates as an attempt to derail the bills.
Polanco said that secession supporters' resistance to statewide elimination of the veto exposed the fallacy of their past assertions that the bill, which would eliminate the City Council veto over secession attempts, is a "simple" measure about democracy.
"We exposed it for what it was," Polanco said after the hearing. "This very 'simple' bill as presented was really a Trojan Horse for the breakup of the city of Los Angeles."
The amendment to apply the proposed change in the law to the entire state was approved on a 4-2 vote of the committee.
The amendments will come back to the committee in two weeks for a second vote before moving to the appropriations committee and finally to the Senate floor.
All four Democrats on the committee voted for the amendment, while independent Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) and Sen. Richard Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) opposed it.
The unified effort by Senate Democrats on the committee, as well as Polanco's surprise appointment to it, signals a shift from a few months ago, when Lockyer had his own secession bill and Democrats were split on the issue.
Against the backdrop of a possible run for state attorney general, Lockyer had emerged this year as a major supporter of secession legislation. He met in Los Angeles with Valley leaders and promised them he would put his considerable power behind the bill bearing his name.
That newfound partnership with the Valley did not sit well with Los Angeles area senators, including Polanco and Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles).
Based on continuing divisiveness within the Democratic caucus, Lockyer said last month that he was abandoning his bill in favor of caucus unity. But he promised to stay neutral, a vow proponents of Valley secession legislation said he broke with his letter and the Polanco appointment.
"The letter was clearly not from someone remaining neutral," said Jeff Brain, co-chairman of a group formed to lobby for the legislation. "It's from someone trying to influence the legislation."
Former Rep. Bobbi Fiedler said Lockyer's influence was evident.
"It appeared as though he had a surrogate--if not more than one--at this hearing today," Fiedler said.
Fiedler has been involved in pushing for the legislation since it was proposed last year by former Assemblywoman Paula Boland.
Press secretary Sandy Harrison denied that Lockyer is still pulling the strings behind the scenes.
"He wasn't ordering anybody to do anything [in the letter]," Harrison said. "He has not veered from his promise to stay neutral."
While acknowledging that the amendments were a problem, the authors of the bills said there is plenty of time and lots of ways to save the measure.
"It was a setback," said Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), co-author of one of the Assembly bills. "It was not a defeat.
McClintock's bill, also sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), calls for eliminating City Council veto power over secession requests and provides for a citywide vote on the question of dividing the city.