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Visions of a New City, Where Control Is Local

April 29, 2001|SHIRLEY SVORNY | Shirley Svorny is professor of economics at Cal State Northridge

According to the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission, the San Fernando Valley can serve as a financially viable city, distinct from Los Angeles. With yearly alimony payments from the Valley, the city would emerge fiscally unharmed and the Valley would still have sufficient funds to run a separate government.

Although LAFCO has yet to issue its final report and the issue of detachment can come before voters no sooner than November 2002, it is not too early to start thinking about how the new city might be structured. If and when we vote on forming it, we will also vote to elect a mayor and city council. It will be up to this team to shape the new Valley city.

I would like to see the new cities--both the Valley and the new L.A.--meet the vision of local control that has motivated the grass-roots effort to downsize Los Angeles. The Valley, although only one-third the size of Los Angeles, would nevertheless be the sixth-largest city in the country. How can we achieve true local control?

To begin, rather than vesting control over service provision with the city as a whole, we could establish smaller service districts. State law would start the new Valley city with 15 council districts. If the boundaries of these districts proved to be impractical for local service provision, we could use existing police districts, community plan areas or even communities as the basis for local control.

Elected representatives of the service districts should be given the power to contract out services, from ambulance to garbage collection. This would increase local control. More important, it would protect us from being held hostage, as we are now, to the municipal production of services that is inefficient and unresponsive.

Several existing city divisions provide a geographic basis for how local control might be implemented in the new city. For example, there are five police divisions that serve the Valley (18 in the city as a whole). The boundaries were drawn relatively free of political influence. Each of the Valley divisions has about one-quarter of a million residents (more than all but a dozen of the more than 450 cities in California).

These areas could be set up as independent police districts. Researchers have found that smaller police districts are no more costly and offer equal or better services. Funding for police would come from the city, but control over service procurement would be vested in the neighborhoods that comprised each police division. It would be left to the residents of these divisions to decide from whom to purchase police services.

If you think police divisions are too large--or too large for city services other than police--another potential level of local control could rest with the 35 community plan areas in Los Angeles. (A map is at The boundaries of these areas were drawn to facilitate planning for growth and economic development. (In comparison, the map shows how gerrymandered L.A. City Council districts are.) Of the 14 community plan areas in the Valley, the largest is Canoga Park-Winnetka-West Hills, with about 170,000 residents. The smallest is Granada Hills-Knollwood, about 57,000 residents.

Procurement of local services--garbage collection, tree trimming, street repair, street maintenance--could be shifted to the community plan area level, again allowing communities to contract out if they saw fit. Funding would come from the general fund of the new Valley city, allocated on the basis of historical spending and changing patterns of residential and business use of land.

This is how resources are allocated in any city, but shifting the procurement to the community plan area level would add a valuable dose of local control over service providers. Voters would elect an individual to oversee service provision in each service district, a person who would be directly responsible to the community. Most of what we now think of as city government responsibilities could be handled at this level.

If the bulk of public services were procured or provided at the local level, representatives at this level should be paid. With less day-to-day responsibility, city council members might be paid only a small honorarium.

An alternative to community plan areas as vehicles for the provision of local public services is the 27 "named communities" in the Valley. North Hollywood is the largest with more than 140,000 residents; Toluca Lake is smallest, with about 6,000. Residents of small communities could choose to join with a larger, adjacent community to purchase services. I wouldn't be surprised, however, to find that even the smallest chose to buy many services independently. Local control is an attractive option.

One great potential of detachment is in our ability to change the way we provide public services. Establishing smaller districts would shift procurement of public services to levels that allowed neighborhood participation and debate. The increased local oversight, combined with the incentives associated with the ability to contract out at will, would lead to services better targeted to local needs.

Downsizing isn't just a suggestion that would offer local control to San Fernando Valley residents, but a proposal for the new L.A. as well, if Los Angeles is game to try it.

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