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SECESSION SKETCHBOOK

Issue Is Loud and Clear for a Key Bloc of Voters

July 25, 2002|JAMES RICCI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A portly, elderly man wearing a Hawaii baseball cap and a hearing aid the size of an oyster shell lowered himself onto the folding chair next to Anne Cohen.

"Did you see the editorial in the Daily News today?" he asked, somewhat loudly. "It was tremendous. The City Hall people, they're trying every obstructionist thing they can to prevent the new city. Me, I want to get out of L.A."

Cohen, a small woman of 82, retired bookkeeper and office manager who lives in Sherman Oaks, looked the stranger up and down. "Why break up everything we've built up over all these years?" she asked. "I'm totally against breaking up a wonderful city like this."

"Wonderful city?" the man exclaimed. "You go anywhere in the Valley and look at all the potholes that never get fixed." He waved a hand dismissively. "Don't talk to me. I don't want to get angry." He stewed for a moment. "And she calls it a 'wonderful city,' " he muttered. "I better go sit someplace else."

He rose and sidled past the feet of others, en route to friendlier precincts half a dozen rows farther back in the auditorium. Cohen rested her hands on the purse in her lap and lifted her chin.

Meanwhile, the anticipated audience of 100 was doubling. More and more chairs were unfolded and lined up on the bare wooden floor of the Sherman Oaks-Van Nuys Center to accommodate the Seniors for Action public debate on San Fernando Valley secession.

The battle already has spawned citizens meetings in halls and living rooms throughout Los Angeles, as pro- and anti-secessionists test their arguments and measure public sentiment about breaking Los Angeles into smaller pieces. It no doubt will birth many more as the Nov. 5 election nears.

Although radio and television ads are sure to begin proliferating as the two sides raise money to buy air time, turnout for local elections is always low, and small gatherings of more-interested-than-average citizens like the Seniors for Action likely will prove to be an important part of turning sentiment into votes.

At the debate, the heads dipping over the fact sheets were grandparently white. The seats filled in an orderly way from front to back (the attendees wanted to make sure they could hear). Fliers on a lobby table offered "Memory Testing ... FREE." Nonetheless, this was a tough house--an audience plenty wise to the world, with a lot of time for argument and little patience for folderol.

Jeff Brain, president of Valley VOTE (Voters Organized Toward Empowerment), the highest-profile pro-secession group, had barely begun his remarks when a man in the audience shouted, "Louder!"

"Louder?" Brain asked.

He resumed his statement at higher volume.

"Speak a little slower," yelled another man.

"Slower," Brain confirmed

Brain's opponent, political consultant Larry Levine, leader of the Valley-based anti-secession group One Los Angeles, began by apologizing for not having brought enough handouts. "They're bringing more material," he said, "When it gets here ..."

"Can't hear you!" a woman shouted.

Levine moved the hand microphone closer to his mouth. "When it gets here--is that better?"

"You weren't prepared," a man shouted.

It was clear from the start that, like Anne Cohen and the man in the Hawaii hat, sizable segments of the audience had made up their minds about secession."I'd like to ask the people down here," Levine scolded, pointing to the front left of the hall, "to let me finish my speech without heckling and without commenting. The people on the other side were courteous enough to let Jeff finish without commenting and making smart-aleck remarks."

Anne Cohen shifted indignantly in her seat. "This crowd here, these older people," she muttered, "they're all crude. The people I know are more intelligent. They're dead-set against secession."

The issue of what might happen to the L.A. rent-control ordinance if a Valley city were formed proved of keen interest to an audience of fixed-incomers. Brain castigated secession opponents for raising the specter of the law being lifted by a new Valley city council. A "scare tactic," he called it. He then bade several announced Valley city council candidates in attendance to stand and state their position on the issue. Each pledged support for eternal rent control.

"This issue was never discussed by anybody on our side," he asserted. "This has been brought up by the opposition to instill fear

"In Glendale!" two men in the audience shouted simultaneously.

This contention, a familiar one, that he doesn't even live in the part of the Valley that might secede from L.A., but in the free-standing city of Glendale, rumpled Brain's usually smooth and earnest demeanor. "No, not true," he insisted. "I lived in Sherman Oaks for 25 years and I left because I got a divorce, and now I've moved back to Sherman Oaks."

The $1.3 billion that a Valley city would have to pay in alimony to L.A. over 20 years was shocking to Levine. Brain said the prosperous new city readily would manage it.

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