The once-obscure agency set to decide Wednesday whether to call a citywide election on San Fernando Valley secession has come under fire from all sides over the methods it used to craft a breakup plan.
The Local Agency Formation Commission, a state-empowered panel that typically handles minor boundary shifts, has never before tried to divvy up a major city. And in drafting a plan that could go before voters in November, the commission has repeatedly changed directions and left key questions unanswered.
Most of the unknowns have to do with the longer-term financial health of a Valley city and the shrunken Los Angeles it would leave behind.
The report before LAFCO this week envisions the Valley as a contract city that would depend on Los Angeles for all municipal services, at least for the first year. That approach, which defenders say was the only realistic way to address the complexity of the proposed breakup, shaped LAFCO's conclusions in each of its secession analyses, leaving dissatisfied observers on all sides.
But experts say it is not up to LAFCO to eliminate every uncertainty that arises in the dismembering of a city of 3.7 million people. They also say the political battle over secession makes it inevitable that LAFCO's work, no matter how thorough, will be subject to heated second-guessing.
"This is going to live in a glass house," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. "Everything's fair game. It's always going to be messy, especially when the stakes are this high.... There's no cookbook for how to divide up the city."
Barring a successful court challenge, LAFCO has the last word on whether, and in what form, secession proposals for the Valley, Hollywood and the harbor area reach the ballot. Its decisions on the Hollywood and harbor measures are due in the next two weeks.
The agency has spent more than two years and $2 million analyzing breakup plans. It has sampled a variety of recipes. First, it designed a wholesale split between the Valley and the rest of the city, only to abandon that approach for a simpler model. It has changed payment estimates over and over again, but the city still contends the calculations are off by tens of millions of dollars.
Lawsuit Threats and Anger in Harbor Area
Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn has hinted that the city might sue over the Valley breakup plan, and even some secessionists--particularly those from the harbor area, which LAFCO has thus far judged incapable of supporting itself as a separate city--are questioning how the agency reached its conclusions.
In the harbor area, LAFCO has used so many different projections that the area's apparent budget deficit shriveled from $51 million a year to $6 million, and it could shrink even further if LAFCO relieves the harbor's debt payments.
Experts say that the zigzagging path can be traced to LAFCO's roots. The state Legislature created Local Agency Formation Commissions in 1963 to manage growth in each county. The commissions are filled with a hodgepodge of political appointees, from county supervisors and city council members to water district directors.
State law offers basic guidelines--for example, secession plans must preserve the fiscal health of both the existing city and any new towns carved from it--but LAFCOs can set additional rules as they go along.
"They're supposed to be looking at it in a neutral way," said William Fulton, an urban planner who has written books about Southern California sprawl. "But this is a commission made up of local politicians, so it's going to be political. And the Los Angeles County LAFCO has a history of being especially political."
The commissioners leave the number crunching to hired hands. To judge whether each proposed city's revenue would cover its expenses, LAFCO turned to Public Financial Management Inc., a consulting firm with experience studying secession plans in New York state.
The biggest challenge was the Valley, whose 1.35-million population is almost 10 times larger than that of the proposed harbor city and seven times that of Hollywood. Midway through their analysis, the consultants scrapped their original plan to divide the city's assets. Gone were the neat calculations that gave two of the Fire Department's six helicopters and 8,564 of 34,607 municipal employees to the Valley.
Instead, LAFCO decided it made more sense to design an independent Valley as a contract city.
The Valley would hire Los Angeles, the very city it's trying to escape, to provide all municipal services for at least one year. To compensate Los Angeles for lost tax revenue, the Valley would have to fork over an annual "alimony" payment.
Then came the avalanche of data from both camps. That led to wildly different price tags for the secession plans, depending on who did the math.