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A Savvy Referee for L.A.'s Secession Wars

Politics: Yaroslavsky plays a key role arbitrating between activists, bureaucrats.


If voters are asked to decide, perhaps this November, whether to break Los Angeles into as many as four smaller cities, they won't see Zev Yaroslavsky's name on the ballot.

But the powerful county supervisor, a fixture in Los Angeles politics since the presidency of Gerald Ford, has left his fingerprints all over the secession proposals for the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and the harbor area.

As chairman of a little-known subcommittee of a state agency with the power to take secession to the voters, Yaroslavsky became the equivalent of the referee while city officials and secessionists wrestled over precise terms of the breakup. Many of the stickiest issues--how to divvy up such assets as police stations, for example, or what utility rates Los Angeles might charge the breakaway cities--landed squarely at his feet.

He was sometimes gruff, accusing the city of trying to "torpedo" the proposals or comparing turf-hungry Los Angeles bureaucrats to lions gnawing on a slab of red meat. He was often in a hurry. And time after time, Yaroslavsky came down on the side of what he called common sense, using "gut checks" and "smell tests" to feel his way through a swamp of competing interests and to look for compromises.

"I'm just calling them as I see them, trying to be fair and logical and equitable," said Yaroslavsky, who has remained publicly neutral on secession.

Experience, Position Make for Ideal Arbiter

In many ways, the mustachioed politician, whom the late City Council President John Ferraro called "master of the sound bite," is a natural choice to arbitrate what could be one of the biggest political upsets in Los Angeles history if the secession drives succeed. As a county official, Yaroslavsky has a far smaller stake in the outcome than do City Hall leaders. Yet, after almost 20 years as a Los Angeles councilman, he knows city government better than most anyone.

He's especially savvy when it comes to the city budget--a source of fierce tussling in the secession tug of war--because he spent 11 years running the council's influential Budget Committee.

Now, as one of nine members of the Local Agency Formation Commission, a state-created panel whose hottest decisions generally involve sewer district annexations, Yaroslavsky will help decide whether to put the breakaway proposals on the Nov. 5 ballot. It was a position he sought, appointing himself to the LAFCO board five years ago when he headed the Board of Supervisors. He said he wanted to be part of the action when the secession campaigns revved up.

Yaroslavsky took on an even more vigorous role last fall when LAFCO Chairman Henri Pellissier asked him to lead a four-person subcommittee to help craft secession packages that could go before voters. It was a complex, fast-paced job that required Yaroslavsky to spur city leaders and secessionists to agree on three proposals in a matter of a few months.

"He's been harsh on both sides," said Ron Deaton, the city's chief legislative analyst and a lead negotiator for Los Angeles in the secession debates. "I think what he's trying to do, whether it is successful or not, is to give both sides enough pain to have them feel obliged to negotiate between themselves to come to some agreement, so that he doesn't have to make a decision.

"Other than that," Deaton added with a wink as Yaroslavsky walked by, "he's a miserable SOB."

It's a playful jibe that elicits only a wry smile from Yaroslavsky, who has made a career of taking on powerful forces including the Los Angeles Police Department, commercial developers, oil magnates and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Like the secessionists, he was once the underdog too, a mop-haired Hebrew teacher who shook up the political establishment by winning a seat on the Los Angeles City Council at 26.

Over the years, some of Yaroslavsky's actions have helped smooth the path for secessionists. In 1998, at his behest, the Board of Supervisors doubled the length of time allotted to Valley secession leaders to collect the 135,000 signatures needed to trigger a study of cityhood's feasibility. Yaroslavsky, who represents the Westside and much of the Valley, also pushed for public funding to verify the signatures and conduct the studies rather than imposing hefty costs on secession proponents.

More recently, Yaroslavsky's LAFCO panel aligned itself with secession leaders on a number of key issues. The subcommittee rejected the city's argument that it would be stuck with more than $300 million a year in costs if the Valley secedes, instead recommending that the Valley pay Los Angeles $36.6 million in annual "alimony."

Not surprisingly, that pleased secession advocates, who generally give him high marks for fairness.

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