The top official of the commission reviewing San Fernando Valley secession on Wednesday challenged the finding by the panel's lawyer that Los Angeles cannot be forced to give up parks and other assets without payment.
The position of Larry J. Calemine, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, is significant because he is the key official shaping the secession proposal that could go before voters in November 2002. And a division of assets is one of the most contentious issues.
By challenging the opinion of County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman, Calemine aligned himself with secessionists, who have urged LAFCO to order a transfer of parks, libraries and other assets, without compensation to Los Angeles.
Calemine said that if a Valley city waives any claim to a share of L.A. property outside the Valley, that might be enough "compensation" for assets inside the Valley. A Valley city might otherwise be forced to tap limited resources to pay Los Angeles millions of dollars for police stations, firehouses and other essential assets.
Calemine's final secession plan will be subject to approval by the nine LAFCO commissioners. Two of them, James DiGiuseppe and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, echoed Calemine's misgivings about the opinion released Monday.
DiGiuseppe, a former judge, cited the lack of any precedent for the breakup of a major city, saying the opinion was based on "conjecture" rather than actual court cases.
Pellman found that, for the most part, Los Angeles is entitled to the same constitutional protections as a private property owner; namely, any "taking" of its property requires "just compensation."
The opinion was a serious blow to Valley VOTE, the group pushing to get secession on the ballot. Valley VOTE Chairman Richard Close, a non-voting alternate LAFCO commissioner, called on the board to get a second opinion from a state judge. And Calemine, a leader of the Valley secession movement in the 1970s, agreed that would be a good idea.
But other commissioners said LAFCO should accept the guidance of its own lawyer. One commissioner, county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, said it would be inappropriate to ask a judge to second-guess LAFCO's lawyer.
The dispute over assets led to new charges of conflicts of interest at LAFCO. Alternate commissioner Cristine Cruz-Madrid questioned whether Close should participate in the secession proceedings when he leads the group that petitioned for the breakup.
But Close said his name was not actually on the petition to LAFCO. "From a technical point of view, I am not one of the proponents," he said.
He said LAFCO was legislative rather than judicial, so "members are permitted to have views on subjects being discussed, much like Congress members or state Assembly members."
But One Los Angeles, an anti-secession group, plans to urge LAFCO this week to require Close to recuse himself from secession matters.
Larry Levine, co-founder of One Los Angeles, said the group also would ask LAFCO to remove Calemine as its main arbiter in the secession proceedings. The group cited Calemine's leadership of the 1970s secession drive and his proposal last week to change state law so the referendum could take place in April, when low voter turnout could boost prospects for approval. LAFCO has had trouble meeting legal deadlines to get the proposal on the ballot next November.
"Calemine's credibility as a neutral fact-finder on this is zero," Levine said.
Calemine could not be reached for comment but has previously denied he is biased.
LAFCO Chairman Henri Pellissier said the commission would review the requests of One Los Angeles but said Calemine is impartial.
"I think he's doing a good job," Pellissier said.
Times staff writer Sue Fox contributed to this story.