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Boiling Down Secession

April 20, 2002

Channeling Sierra Nevada water to Southern California was one of the great engineering feats of its day, and in 1915 Los Angeles annexed the San Fernando Valley mainly because the aqueduct that brought that water ended there. Almost 100 years later, the Valley's effort to secede from the city is a monumental reverse-engineering challenge.

How do voters go about untangling a century's worth of water mains, sewer pipes, power lines, computer networks, employee pension plans and bond obligations, not to mention the history, that have come to knit the Valley to the rest of Los Angeles? And what would be the result?

As secession winds its way to an almost certain vote in November, the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Women Voters has drawn voters a blueprint to help them understand the debate's complexities. In addition to sponsoring candidate debates, the nonprofit, nonpartisan league works to clarify major issues; its 60-page report calls the prospective ballot measure the most important here since voters approved the bonds to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Ultimately the league found so many differences between the city's and secession advocates' figures, analyses and projections that it couldn't say what a new Valley city would be like. Should secession pass, some issues will probably be settled by the courts, others negotiated over the next several years. Voters, the report concluded, would have to decide in November "based on faith, and only a rather vague vision, that somehow it will all work out."

How can voters make that decision with so many questions unanswered? The league, which will take a position itself before the November election, suggests that residents counter the uncertainty by asking still more questions: Will secession achieve the goals that its proponents claim? Will I, and my community, be better off? How will dividing Los Angeles affect the future of the region?

Take schools, a source of dissatisfaction for Los Angeles residents on both sides of Mulholland Drive. The city does not oversee the Los Angeles Unified School District, so Valley secession would not break up or otherwise "fix" the school district, as many people believe.

The report traces some of the frustrations underlying secession to the changes that have reshaped and in some cases unsettled much of Southern California over the last 30 years, from the loss of aerospace jobs that supported middle-class families to demographic shifts that have made Los Angeles one of the most diverse cities on Earth. Would splitting Los Angeles into the nation's third- and sixth-largest cities restore a sense of community or just cost it clout? This is the kind of question that's being argued passionately and the kind of question that needs to be raised when deciding whether to take apart one of the world's best-known cities.

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