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A California Question: Lifestyle or Importance?

April 08, 2001|XANDRA KAYDEN | Xandra Kayden is a senior fellow at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research

The numbers are finally coming in on secession, but they probably won't settle the argument about whether the San Fernando Valley should secede from the city of Los Angeles.

Money is only part of the story. A significant part, to be sure, but probably not the most important in the long run. Although there haven't been any polls on this, it is possible that those who most ardently yearn for their own city are those who remember it "when." Or at least remember what it was depicted to be on television and in the movies.

Even knowing that it is now as diverse--or almost as diverse--as the rest of the city, the image of the Valley is one of a homogeneous middle class, happily secure in single-family homes and good local schools.

Those who worried that the Valley wasn't getting its fair share and advocated secession as the best alternative now have the opportunity to make their case with the recent release of the Local Agency Formation Commission's initial fiscal analysis.

It isn't going to be an easy discussion. The most ardent secessionists bring so much passion to their cause that discussion isn't easy and others just back away. The anti-secessionists don't seem to have a voice, perhaps because there aren't any or, more likely, because aside from the mayor and those running for mayor, political leaders are waiting on their followers. There are few other large institutional perches from which a leader's voice could emerge. But the debate will be joined and, in time, the voters must make up their minds.

The numbers are going to be confusing. Yes, the Valley appears to pay more in some respects, but it gets more in others. Yes, the Valley could be a viable city, but it would have to pay the city of Los Angeles for the privilege ($68 million a year, according to the preliminary study). More than a quarter of the figures from the fiscal analysis were estimates because the city did not analyze certain revenue. Even so, voters will need to ask questions that go far beyond the numbers.

There are issues about participation and leadership in both the city and the region. There is a more subtle question of culture: changing, urban, peculiarly Californian, yet extraordinarily diverse. How do Valley residents want to live? How will their dreams be changed by a change in the structure of the city?


If there is a real debate, these are the primary questions: Why should the Valley secede? Why shouldn't the Valley secede?

On the pro-secession side, these points could be made: The Valley has seen a decline in city services and feels disenfranchised because City Hall is far away. With one-third of the city's population, it is underrepresented on the City Council because too many of its council people also serve areas on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Los Angeles is too large and unwieldy. It takes too much in taxes and fees for what it gives back. Perhaps even more than the money, there is the desire for control over one's own life: "If we ran our own city, it would be more efficient and the return to the community would be greater."

On the anti-secession side, these points might be made: The entire city saw a decline in services through most of the 1990s because of the deep recession and because the Richard Riordan administration took from every department to supplement the budget of the Los Angeles Police Department. The City Council districts could be more coherently drawn, but they are bound by the federal Voting Rights Act. Every part of the city felt it had no access and no one listened, but that's why the City Charter was reformed and neighborhood councils were created (an opportunity not set to begin implementation until July at the earliest).

Why not give the charter a chance? If the city is divided, the new city will have the old employees and will lose as much control as it gains. And it will have an added burden in building its own infrastructure.

These are all important points, but there are other issues. The Valley is changing, in part, because the world is changing. Globalization, although admired in many respects, often hurts just because it is about change. There are new neighbors and, above all, there is a new economy that is less understandable and certainly less controllable.


The desire to have control over one's own life is seriously threatened in the 21st century no matter where you live. Would it be better in a smaller city? Would a Valley city be small enough? As it is, the Valley is many times the size of San Francisco or Boston; it is more akin to Miami. It is certainly not a community like Burbank or Santa Monica.

Is being part of one of the largest cities in the world an opportunity to embrace the larger world? Cities are remembered by history. Suburbs are nice places to live but not known for greatness. In some respects, it may come down to the classic California conundrum: the balance of lifestyle against importance. San Francisco, at least until the technology economy hit, clearly voted for the former. L.A. chose the latter.

Valley residents may have to make that choice for themselves, although it will also affect everyone else in the city, irrespective of the costs.

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