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Secession Backers Get Necessary 20 Signatures

July 29, 1999|ERIC MALNIC and MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Petitioners have come up with the 20 additional valid signatures needed to force the Local Agency Formation Commission to study the economic feasibility of secession from Los Angeles by San Pedro and Wilmington, the county registrar's office said Wednesday.

Earlier this month, LAFCO officials had announced that a petition filed July 2 by Harbor VOTE Inc. contained 13,450 valid voter signatures, just 20 shy of the 13,470 required for the study.

The petitioners went back to work, and a count Wednesday showed that they had garnered enough signatures.

"We needed only 20, so when we got to 20, we stopped counting," said Xavier Hermosillo, chairman of the Harbor VOTE advisory board.

Unlike other ballot drives, cityhood proposals are not immediately placed before voters after activists collect enough signatures. Instead, they are sent to LAFCO, which studies them in depth before ultimately deciding whether to place a secession vote on the ballot.

Hermosillo said the study--which he likened to the preparation of a "massive environmental impact report"--could take two years to complete.

Although San Pedro and Wilmington are home to only about 140,000 of Los Angeles' roughly 3.5 million residents, their proposed secession has vast potential ramifications. The two communities are home to the Port of Los Angeles, one of the world's major trading centers.

Secessionists say they would take the port with them, pointing out that the state owns most of the harbor lands and waters, and lease them to Los Angeles through a tidelands grant.

Los Angeles is equally determined to keep the port, an enormous asset in which, over the years, the city has invested what amounts to at least $250 million in today's dollars.

Harbor cityhood proponents launched their drive a day after secessionists in the San Fernando Valley unveiled their own proposal for leaving Los Angeles. The harbor-area petitioners plan to coordinate their drive with the much bigger effort in the Valley, where activists want to create a separate city of at least 1.2 million people.

"We are not going to reinvent the wheel," Andrew Mardesich, leader of the Harbor Study Foundation, another group supporting harbor secession, said Wednesday. "We do realize we are a different area with different issues than the Valley, but we are going to follow the road they have carved out."

On Wednesday, the first public hearing on the San Fernando Valley's potential secession from the city failed to attract a single member of the public.

Other than a few city officials, a private consultant, a couple of reporters and several leaders of breakaway movements in the Valley and the harbor--the same faces present at all secession meetings--members of the Local Agency Formation Commission spoke before a vacant chamber at the Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles.

"Not even the usual suspects," Larry Calemine, the panel's executive director, quipped afterward to County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman.

The absence of even gadfly representation at the weekday hearing on one of the most important issues facing the city raises questions about what LAFCO is doing to involve the public in an obscure political process that could eventually lead to a public vote on the dissolution of Los Angeles.

Aware of the challenge before them, LAFCO's nine appointed members have discussed holding public hearings across the city. To spread the word about the issue, LAFCO has even entertained launching a public relations campaign, and plans to hold meetings at more convenient times, such as nights and weekends.

Wednesday's hearing was scheduled within 90 days of the filing of secession papers, as required by state law. Because of the dismal turnout, the meeting was continued until Aug. 25.

Before adjourning, LAFCO decided not to pursue a suggestion by the city Ethics Commission that LAFCO require groups lobbying on secession to disclose their donors and financial war chests.

LAFCO staff members argued that LAFCO does not have the power to enact such regulations because it is an arm of the state. That opinion contradicted the view of the Ethics Commission, which argued that LAFCO did have the authority.

LAFCO did agree to consider an ordinance forcing panelists to disclose communications with contractors seeking business with the panel.

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