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THE SECESSION DEBATE

Agency Chief Gets No Break From City's Breakaway Bids

April 18, 2002|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Larry Calemine, truth be told, is tired of secession.

His blue eyes are rimmed red. He goes to bed only to lie awake, mind aswirl with thoughts of fixed assets and bond debt. His phone seems to never stop ringing.

As head of the government agency weighing the consequences of carving Los Angeles into as many as four cities, Calemine is essentially the lead architect drawing up the breakup blueprints.

It's a responsibility the former developer says he never bargained for, a job fraught with controversy and with no precedent in California. The last time a new city split from an existing one was 82 years ago, when Montebello left Monterey Park--decades before the state created the modern machinery for making a break.

Making Calemine's task tougher as executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission are the repeated charges of bias and conflicts of interest stemming from his role as a secession leader in the 1970s and his real estate consulting work.

"Hell, I wouldn't have taken the job if I'd known [a secession bid] was coming," he said, his voice coarsened by years of smoking. "When this is over I'm going to get my life back."

Sometime today, Friday, or maybe next week--the schedule is always changing as new data tumble into his office--Calemine plans to present his final report on San Fernando Valley secession. Reports on the viability and terms of cityhood for Hollywood and the harbor area will follow.

Calemine must decide whether cityhood is financially feasible for the three regions. If so, he must propose terms for police and fire protection, water rights, and "alimony" payments. It's Calemine who will recommend when the new cities would be born, and Calemine who must devise a fair split for Los Angeles' billions of dollars in contracts and debt.

Then it's up to Calemine's bosses, the nine members of LAFCO, to decide whether to put secession to a citywide vote in November.

By law, LAFCO must consider Calemine's recommendations in making its decision.

Despite early doubts, some officials who have worked closely with Calemine say he has proved evenhanded and willing to listen to both sides of the secession debates.

"Larry has navigated this minefield with more sophistication than he's given credit for," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a LAFCO commissioner who helped shape the terms of the proposed breakups.

"I had concerns going into this process about whether he could be fair," Yaroslavsky admitted. "But I've been more than satisfied with the way he's handled it."

Early Support for Valley Secession

By his own admission, the 66-year-old Calemine isn't much of a diplomat. Built like a bulldog with a short temper to match, he was raised "in the streets of Brooklyn," he says proudly. The son of Italian immigrants, he started working full time as a carpenter at 17 and served in the Navy during the Korean War.

His unlikely journey into the eye of secession's political storm began in 1958, when he moved his young family to California in search of warmer weather. He found drafting jobs at a series of engineering firms, and by the mid-1960s he was working for the Warner family in the Valley, developing Warner Center.

Calemine later started his own commercial realty company, which bought and sold projects throughout the Southwest.

And in 1975, he did what a lot of prominent Valley businessmen did: He joined CIVICC, the Committee Investigating Independent City/County. The group was so incensed by what it saw as City Hall's slights that it wanted the Valley to secede from Los Angeles. "Those of us who were very active in the Valley felt we were getting short shrift," Calemine recalled.

The breakaway effort, though quickly snuffed out by state legislation that gave city councils veto power over secessions, was "a win-win situation," he said. "Mayor [Tom] Bradley spent a lot of time in the Valley after that. It became obvious that the Valley was not an area to be ignored."

It's that sort of saber-rattling, however, that worries opponents of today's secession drives, who must rely on Calemine to be a neutral mediator.

"He's been pushing to break up the city for 30 years," said Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 347, the largest city employees union, which contends that secession could jeopardize jobs. "He's been utterly unresponsive to the union's concerns."

Calemine denies any bias. "I am a professional," he insists time and again, whenever questions arise.

And they come up often. Last year, The Times found that Calemine had earned at least $117,000 for outside consulting work--including for an attorney with business before LAFCO--while employed at the government agency. His $100,000-per-year LAFCO job required him to work 40 hours a week and limited outside employment to 24 hours a week.

County lawyers determined that he had not broken any conflict-of-interest rules, and Calemine agreed not to accept new clients without LAFCO's consent.

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