For San Fernando Valley residents, 1999 will be a year requiring extraordinary attention to civic affairs, including issues of charter reform, secession, the breakup of the schools, City Council elections and a massive police and fire bond measure.
"It's going to be like a giant civics course for everybody," said City Councilman Joel Wachs of Studio City.
"It's really exciting. The issues involved are fundamental issues about how people want to be governed and what kind of city they want."
The year promises to be one of historic significance in the life of Los Angeles and particularly the San Fernando Valley, in large measure because it will mark the first time in 75 years that voters will consider a comprehensive rewriting of the City Charter.
"The two big issues for 1999 will be charter reform and Valley cityhood," said Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE, which turned in more than 200,000 signatures seeking a study of secession. "The two issues are complementary. Both of them recognize our city government needs substantial changes."
Charter reform was a response to the Valley's threat to secede, so the June 1999 election on charter reform is seen as critical to the future of Los Angeles.
"If Los Angeles passes a new charter, it will be the first time in three-quarters of a century," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor and chairman of the elected Charter Reform Commission. "The new charter will last us well into the 21st century."
The 15-member commission elected by voters and the separate 21-member commission appointed by the City Council each has come up with a proposed charter. There is some effort to reach a consensus on one proposal, but there is also a chance that voters will have to decide between two charters on the June ballot.
Each new charter is more than 130 pages long and, although the commissions attempted to simplify the text, both involve some complicated language about how government should operate.
Special-interest groups are expected to wage campaigns for their favorite charter. "Residents will have to sift through the rhetoric," Chemerinsky said.
Charter reform will fail, Close predicted, because neither charter commission has gone as far as Valley residents want in decentralizing city government and giving control to neighborhoods.
If this is the case, secession will gain momentum in the Valley, San Pedro, Westchester and other areas of the city, he predicted.
Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, said support for Valley cityhood is soft, even in the Valley.
"When people are told how much it's going to cost them, support will decrease significantly," he predicted.
The data on the cost of Valley cityhood should begin flowing to voters in 1999, Close said.
He said Valley VOTE will learn this month whether the 200,000 signatures they turned in last month included 130,000 valid signatures required to force LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission, to launch a study of the financial implications of Valley cityhood.
Although the study is likely to go into the year 2000 to complete, Close said elements of it, such as reviews of debt load and water rights, may be completed this year and released to the public for debate.
"My thinking is it will be a very public process," he said.
Close also said it is likely that LAFCO will begin holding public hearings that could shape the cityhood proposal in 1999.
"If the people of the northeast Valley decide they don't want to be a part of the new city, they can go to the LAFCO hearings and make their feelings known," Close said. "LAFCO then can shrink the boundaries of the new city."
Guerra predicted that neither charter reform nor secession will engage the electorate in any meaningful way.
"For the most part, residents are going to ignore them," he said. "It doesn't resonate right now, nor do I believe we will make it resonate."
As for education, Mayor Richard Riordan and business leaders have launched a slate of candidates to challenge three incumbent school board members in this year's election. Gov.-elect Gray Davis and LEARN--Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--have also vowed to make education reform a top priority.
Meanwhile, the group that calls itself FREE, for Finally Restoring Excellence in Education, plans to turn in petitions by this summer to trigger a review of breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District to create two new districts in the San Fernando Valley, organizer Stephanie Carter said.
She said the group is confident it will have enough signatures to trigger a process in which the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization would make a recommendation on the breakup, possibly by the end of the year.
In the April primary election, three of the San Fernando Valley's longest-serving City Council members--John Ferraro, Hal Bernson and Wachs--will be up for reelection.
But the hottest contest will likely be for the 7th District council seat, vacated in December by Richard Alarcon. Although Alarcon's wife, Corina, dropped out of the race, 10 other possible candidates are lining up to compete for the district covering the northeast San Fernando Valley.
Those who have declared so far include legislative aide Alejandro Padilla, former San Fernando Mayor Raul Godinez II, health organization director Corinne Sanchez, Boy Scouts of America regional director Antonio Lopez, government relations director Ollie McCaulley and college administrative assistant Barbara Perkins.
Los Angeles voters also will face some tough decisions in June involving their pocketbooks.
The City Council has tentatively agreed to put a bond measure of up to $750 million on the ballot to pay for new and replacement police and fire stations, including a sixth police station in the San Fernando Valley.