There is a danger that the San Fernando Valley secessionists are so eager to see their dream come true, they will oppose any chance for true governmental reform. If the secessionists oppose charter reform this spring in expectation of their ultimate success, they will keep the whole city waiting for many years.
There is no likelihood that secession will happen quickly. The issues are too complicated and the process too uncertain. Every step is apt to be dogged with litigation, even if a majority in both the Valley and the rest of Los Angeles approves secession. And it will cost a great deal of money, even though no one is quite sure yet who will pay.
There has not been a "detachment" in California in more than 100 years, when Coronado detached from San Diego. Many of the laws are conflicting, and the bottom line must be assurance that no harm is done to either side--an issue that will be a political value judgment as much as anything.
The decision will be made by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a small state agency set up independently by counties. Appointments to LAFCO are made by a mix of elected officials. It has a professional staff of two.
Most of its work is approving annexations. The current Los Angeles LAFCO has no experience with detachment, even though it approved the incorporation of Malibu and of West Hollywood.
There is no appeal to a LAFCO decision in the state hierarchy. Disputes go to the courts. It is expected that just about every decision in this case would be contested and would take many, many years.
Part of the complication comes from the process. Valley VOTE, for instance, protested paying for the qualification of the signatures the group submitted. The negotiated agreement is for the petitioners to pay for testing 3%, but if that fails, the county will pick up the $200,000-plus tab for a full count.
If the petition qualifies, LAFCO will do a study. But who will pay for that? The county? The petitioners originally argued that the study would be done with private money but now want the city and county to pay for it. When Malibu sought incorporation, LAFCO had it contract studies to third parties, but even if Valley secessionists offered to do the same, the politics are decidedly different.
A Valley VOTE study would be as subject to challenge by the city of Los Angeles, as readily as a city study would be challenged by Valley VOTE.
The most important issue is whether detachment would be "revenue neutral." The county took on the responsibility to undertake an in-house study on how to measure neutrality after LAFCO failed to find anyone else to take it on: They couldn't go to the traditional analysts because they do business with the city. They tried RAND, but were turned down because the $75,000 authorized by the county to pay for it wouldn't compensate the Santa Monica-based think tank for the years they expect it to take as it rolls through the courts.
There are the complicated questions about water and electricity. If the Valley secedes from Los Angeles, is it entitled to get water from the Department of Water and Power? If so, it would be buying it from the city, but would the Valley have a say if the city hiked rates because water was scarce? Or because it didn't feel obligated to subsidize residential Valley rates?
Electricity is being deregulated. It is unclear what would happen if the Valley contracted for DWP electricity or if residents and businesses sought private providers. Power accounts for 80% to 90% of DWP's revenue, which in turn provides about $100 million a year to the general fund.
There is the question of indebtedness. The Valley city would be liable for any debt incurred--or authorized to occur--while it was part of Los Angeles, but it would not necessarily get the benefits. How would it pay off such debt?
Secession advocates are angry at the roadblocks the process is throwing their way. "It's like a divorce," they say. "And divorce happens." But what if it is deemed to be more like a child leaving home? Families don't break up the home when the kids go off to school. The questions secession raise are genuinely complex. Their resolution will be a mix of information, politics and values.
Los Angeles has come through several years of disaster and upheaval. Charter reform was a way to take stock and recreate ourselves for the future. There may be an even greater tragedy waiting if we do not take the opportunity to try that out first, before engaging in that long bitter journey toward separation.