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A Third Way: Boroughs

June 16, 2002

Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind. Now that Hollywood and San Fernando Valley secession are on the November ballot, some groups and individuals who had favored breaking up Los Angeles are beginning to have qualms. At the same time, those who oppose secession are starting to see that even if secession were properly defeated, many Angelenos, from Wilmington to Woodland Hills, would continue to feel estranged from their own city.

There has never been a better time or a more urgent need to talk about an alternative that would both keep Los Angeles united and fix the problems that have driven so many to consider smashing it apart. That alternative is a borough system.

The idea behind boroughs is fairly simple: Some decisions--street repairs, say, or park services--are better handled locally. Other services, such as water and power, should be regional. So why not create a system that combines the two? The notion that semiautonomous boroughs would particularly suit a sprawling city like Los Angeles has been around for years; figuring out how to do it is where the devil lies. And a borough system need not throw away the time and effort already invested in local neighborhood councils; they would be incorporated into the regional boroughs.

Last month, Los Angeles City Council members Wendy Greuel, Janice Hahn and Tom LaBonge resurrected the idea. It turned out that state Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg, a well-respected Valley legislator and former Assembly speaker, was working on a more concrete borough plan. The challenge before the City Council and Mayor James K. Hahn is to forge a single plan--not another study, not another layer of bureaucracy, but a pragmatic, politically sensible plan--and to do so in time to put it on the November ballot alongside secession.

Cynics say the City Council would never agree to sharing power, much less putting itself out of business. (Hertzberg calls for replacing the council with a board of borough presidents.) Skeptics say this is too radical a change to rush. We say there's no time like the present--with politics of extremism pressing on one side and apathy on the other--to inspire much-needed creative thinking.

Breaking apart L.A. is a terrible idea, and not just because a world-renowned city would be voting to dismantle itself. Secession activities have cost taxpayers at least $2 million already, not counting the city staff time devoted to the two-year study. Worse, residents don't know what costs, court battles and chaos would follow a vote to split. Worst of all, all of this money and energy has not spruced up a single park, fixed a single traffic-clogged intersection or given a single child an after-school alternative to a gang-infested street.

Even if voters defeat secession--and we fervently hope they do--the city will wake up the next morning with a bruised and divided electorate and more of the status quo. That's not a goal anyone can get excited about.

Plenty of details and horse trading would have to be worked out before the council and the mayor could agree to place a borough plan on the ballot and give the voters that choice. No one is suggesting that boroughs would inspire citywide singing of "We Are the World." But here's the most important thing a borough system would do: give Angelenos something to vote for, not just vote against.

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