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Wordy Ballots Might Hurt Secession Drives

Experts say long-winded measures for Valley and Hollywood proposals could turn off voters.

October 21, 2002|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles voters are receiving lots of letters from the anti-secession campaign, but one mailing that many say puts the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood breakup proposals in a bad light comes with an official government seal.

That would be the sample ballot that contains the lengthy and complicated measures for a municipal split. The ballot language itself is such a turnoff that it could cost the secessionists some votes, according to political experts in and out of the campaigns.

Los Angeles County, which is conducting the Nov. 5 secession election, generally limits ballot measures to 75 words, but the Valley and Hollywood secession measures are a mind-numbing 212 and 202, respectively.

And 199 of those words are in a single, run-on sentence that might have made even Henry James wince.

The county's verbiage limit is not hard-and-fast, and the officials who drafted the secession measures said they had to run long to meet legal requirements for full disclosure.

One of those disclosures jumps out of the thicket of text: the multimillion-dollar separation payments that an independent Valley and Hollywood would have to pay Los Angeles.

Valley political strategist Arnold Steinberg, a former advisor to the secessionists, predicted many people will simply vote against secession rather than wade through and try to comprehend the dense legalese and scary financial figures.

"This sealed its doom, because of the length of the measure and its emphasis on money," said Steinberg, who was involved in successful cityhood campaigns for Malibu and Mission Viejo. "I would have fought this ballot language, taken it to court, and if I lost there I would have walked away from [the secession effort]."

George Gorton, a veteran of initiative campaigns, also said he would have gone to court to simplify the secession measure if he had been involved.

"It's stupid. It's in violation of all political and grammatical rules," said Gorton, who is managing the campaign for Proposition 49, the state measure for after-school programs.

Mayor James K. Hahn counts the ballot language as a plus for his anti-secession drive. "I think generally, if people think something is convoluted and complicated, they are skeptical about it," Hahn said.

But Valley secession leader Richard Close said voters are smarter than that. He said he would have preferred a shorter, simpler measure, but didn't fight for one because he understood the legal reasons for its length. He also said the wording will not decrease the number of votes for secession.

"I believe most people will have full knowledge of this question and have a decision made before they go into the ballot box," Close said.

Political scientist Joel Kotkin, who plans to vote for secession, is only slightly less optimistic. He predicted that 80% of voters will have made up their minds before they enter the ballot booth, but some of the rest could be spooked by the complicated language.

A Times poll released this week used the ballot wording for the first time in querying voters on secession. The poll found that likely voters citywide were 2 to 1 against Valley secession and opposed Hollywood independence by an even larger margin.

Jeff Randle, a political strategist working on Proposition 49, said he has seen first-hand how long, complicated measures can chase off voters.

That, he said, happened to Proposition 8, a school measure that Randle worked on in 1998. He said it lost in part because it was "too long" and included language open to interpretation.

"If that had been simpler, it probably would have passed, but we were dealing with complicated policy issues," Randle said.

The secessionists found themselves in the same fix. Steinberg said the ideal measure should have simply asked voters: Shall the San Fernando Valley (or Hollywood) form its own city, separate and apart from Los Angeles?

But the language was drafted by the Local Agency Formation Commission in a highly politicized atmosphere. With lawyers on both sides making veiled threats of litigation, LAFCO decided short measures wouldn't do.

"That would be too simplistic an approach," LAFCO Executive Officer Larry Calemine said. "People are entitled to know what [forming a separate city] means."

Originally around 100 words, the measures swelled after city officials insisted they include the separation payments. The so-called "alimony" payments account mostly for the difference between the tax revenues generated by the secession areas and the value of city services they receive in return.

LAFCO and the county Board of Supervisors agreed to the city's demands, and then granted a counter-demand from secessionists. They wanted the measures to include an explanation of the payments. And so they became even more complex.

Steinberg said many of the details about the payments could have been put in the impartial summary of the measures that is sent to voters.

"It sounds like it's costing money," he said. "As a general rule, the harder it is to understand, the more likely people will throw up their hands and vote against it."

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