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A Dangerous Nap

A breakup of the city would hurt every section. Wake up, L.A.

January 20, 2002

Consider the map below a sharp tack on a sleepy electorate's easy chair. What it says is this: If secessionists have their way, almost 50% of Los Angeles residents reading this editorial may arise one morning no longer able to call themselves Angelenos. Better to wake up now.

A measure to turn the San Fernando Valley into a city unto itself looks almost certain to go before voters in November. But that's not all. The commission overseeing the secession process seems intent on adding to the same ballot proposals to turn parts of the harbor area and Hollywood into cities.

The commission kept alive the harbor area proposal, earlier deemed financially shaky, by telling a private consulting firm to add cost-cutting alternatives to its final study. It ordered an accelerated analysis of the Hollywood proposal, filed much later than the other two, so that all three would be on the same timetable.

A secession measure has to win more than 50% of the vote in both the proposed new municipality and citywide. Having three different proposals on the ballot would boost each one's chances. If that tactic leads to passage, it will affect all Angelenos, no matter where in Los Angeles they live. The day after the election, Valley, harbor area and Hollywood residents would find themselves Valleyites, Harborians and Hollywoodenos, with no civic connection to Los Angeles, which would no longer be the second-largest city in the United States. Indeed, if the Valley (1.4 million residents and 224 square miles), the harbor area (147,000 residents, 35 square miles) and Hollywood (209,000 residents, 18 square miles) broke off, Los Angeles would lose 1.7 million people and 277 square miles, 46% of its population and 59% of its land area. In other words, those who live in the tattered remains would suddenly be in a city half what it had been and, presumably, suffering a commensurate loss of statewide, national and international clout.

To secession advocates, of course, smaller is better, even if "small" wouldn't describe either a deconstructed Los Angeles or a new Valley city that would still be bigger than Boston and San Francisco combined. We have argued against a breakup, both out of civic pride and because of the complications and uncertainties such a division would entail for both the new and remaining cities. But that's an argument for another day. What's important now is for Angelenos to decide whether four cities are necessarily better than one, whether each would be better or worse off than before, whether disentangling a diverse, vibrant city is worth the costs.

Still ahead are state audits of the consultant's reports and another round of public hearings. The commission has until summer to officially decide which proposals to put on the November ballot. But now is the time for Angelenos to join in the debate, to see that this plan is not just about forming a new city but about dismantling Los Angeles itself.

Angelenos who have seen secession movements wax and wane since the 1970s say it will never happen--one more reason to hit the snooze button and roll over. Don't.

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