No doubt about it: San Fernando Valley residents are fed up. In a privately funded poll released last week, an overwhelming majority of registered voters expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo--so much so that 58% of those questioned would be willing to disband Los Angeles and form a new Valley city if a vote were held today.
Fortunately, though, a vote on breaking apart Los Angeles is still years away as supporters of secession gather signatures and prepare for a lengthy and costly feasibility study. By then, we hope, there won't be any need to secede. That's because in the meantime voters will have the opportunity to fix city government by approving much-needed revisions to its cumbersome charter.
Charter reform holds the key to making Los Angeles again the kind of place where everyday residents have a voice in the body politic. It's a voice they haven't had in a long time. City Hall operates in a haze of factional politics as neighborhoods that ought to cooperate for a better city instead are pitted against each other to compete for scraps from the City Council's table. No wonder the siren melody of secession seems so enticing.
But how enticing is it really? Although the poll meets objective standards for its sample size and random subject selection, how much it actually reveals about the pulse of the Valley is suspect. For one thing, its respondents were overwhelmingly white property owners with no kids in school--hardly representative of the Valley's diversity. That's not the fault of the poll. It sought out registered voters and, sadly, that's a comparatively small pool. Imagine what a voice the people would have if they actually spoke out by voting. Legislative arrogance tends to diminish in the face of an informed, aggressive electorate.
But does the poll even describe how white, property-owning voters feel? Not necessarily. Some of the questions seem leading, particularly those dealing with charter reform. For instance, when asked whether they would support charter reform over secession, respondents were essentially given the choice between agreeing with a City Council that says the Valley already gets its fair share and agreeing with community leaders who say it doesn't. They weren't given a straight choice between serious reform and secession. Given the choice between dysfunctional downtown council or neighbors striving for change, charter reform suddenly doesn't sound so good even to us.
Look at it another way, though. It is possible to disagree with the council and still support a rational, careful reform of the city's government. In fact, the poll reveals support for giving the Valley--and all other neighborhoods--more say in a new Los Angeles. Respondents asked how they felt about a semi-autonomous Valley liked the idea. Carving up the city into self-ruling fiefdoms may not be the best way to go, but any reforms that give greater voice to the people could help quiet the very real sense that City Hall is out of touch. At the same time, though, residents across the Valley and the city need to accept the responsibility such reforms would demand. In other words, they would have to take back their place in government--both by voting and by participating. The old saying is true: People get the government they deserve.