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Mayor Attacks Secession, Urges School Reform

April 08, 1999|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor Richard Riordan used his annual State of the City address Wednesday to unequivocally condemn San Fernando Valley secession and to urge voters to elect a slate of candidates he hopes will revolutionize the troubled Los Angeles school board.

"Breaking Los Angeles apart is not the answer," he said. "Keeping our city together and making Los Angeles better must be our goal."

In what has become characteristically strong language, the mayor insisted that voters no longer tolerate what he characterized as the failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District, four of whose board members are up for reelection Tuesday.

"Our education system is bankrupt," Riordan said. "The public education system is a disgrace. It is failing our children every day. . . . Next week, I urge all Angelenos to cast their vote for change."

Alternately passionate and funny during his 35-minute speech, Riordan described Los Angeles as being in "excellent" shape, but pleaded with residents to redouble their commitment to children and the poor. He dwelt happily on indicators of a healthy city and on recent poll numbers showing public satisfaction with the city and its leadership.

"Life is beautiful in Los Angeles," Riordan said. And, playing off the recent movie while alluding to an injury he suffered slipping on his floor in the middle of the night, the mayor added: "And here I stand before you, Roberto Benigni with a broken toe."

Riordan's annual speech, which was being revised well into the previous night, was warmly greeted by several hundred audience members, who gathered at Mount St. Mary's College as a thunderstorm erupted outside. They greeted the mayor with a standing ovation and interrupted him more than a dozen times with applause, most enthusiastically when he touched on a theme that has run through many of his recent public addresses: his determination to shape city policy around the needs of the poor.

"The quality of life is diminished for all of us, when the quality of life is diminished for one of us," he said. "We must share our bounty with those less fortunate. This philosophy must be at the heart of public initiatives. Every Angeleno, including the poor, deserves--in fact, needs--safer neighborhoods that are free of illegal dumping, graffiti, abandoned buildings and roaming dogs."

Riordan spent much of his speech highlighting indicators of the city's health--from its rebounding economy to its declining crime rate and the soaring confidence of its residents as reflected in a recent Times poll. After citing some of those signs of progress, he pointedly urged an end to the secessionist movement, a Valley-based campaign to break the city apart.

Direct Attack on Secession

His approach to that topic was far more direct than last year, when Riordan delivered his speech in the Valley and alluded to secession without directly addressing the case for or against it. This time, Riordan took on the issue squarely, contrasting the generally positive impressions that residents have of the city with the apparently growing determination that some in the Valley have to leave it.

"By working together, we beat tremendous odds," he said. "To the residents of the San Fernando Valley, I am proud to say that my administration has worked hard to make certain you have received your fair share of services. And you have worked hard to make Los Angeles a better city. I am proud of my record. I am proud of your record."

But Valley VOTE, the lead organization in the secession effort, was unmoved by Riordan's appeal.

"I don't think he can continue to pooh-pooh secession and just say, 'Let's keep the city together,' " said Jeff Brain, president of Valley VOTE. "He's going to have to give us some reasons to stay. This is not going away."

In a rebuttal to Riordan's speech, Valley VOTE released a five-point State of the Valley report that listed some of its grievances. That report cited high business taxes, delays in reconstructing Van Nuys City Hall, deployment of police, allocation of programs for the poor and the failure to designate a Valley Transit Authority as issues that continue to fuel secession.

Riordan indirectly addressed a few of those topics in his speech, delivered before the Valley VOTE statement. He said that the city's business tax structure has been reformed, for instance, and argued that gains in public safety are being felt across the city, including in the Valley. In addition, Riordan urged support for a $744-million bond measure that would pay for new police and fire stations, some of which are slated for the Valley.

The mayor's most impassioned arguments, however, were reserved for education. He called for dramatic change in the area's school system, whose failures he said "make my blood boil."

And he noted that while some people are prepared to give up on public schools, "I refuse to give up while I have an ounce of energy left in my body."

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