Smoked salmon, roast beef and other hors d'oeuvres covered the buffet table. Vocalist Nell Carter waited in the living room, ready to entertain guests. But the atmosphere at last week's fund-raiser for San Fernando Valley mayoral candidate Mel Wilson wasn't festive.
A recent poll indicated that Valley secession was in jeopardy. Underscoring the lack of momentum was the fact that more than half of the two dozen people attending the fund-raiser were relatives, business acquaintances or old family friends. While not conceding defeat, Wilson, a Democrat and a Realtor in Woodland Hills, was upset.
"The Democratic Party has taken a walk on the entire issue, despite the fact that most voters feel disenfranchised and mistreated," he said with a sigh. "We have a mayor with no vision who has ceded leadership to an enormous political machine financed by labor unions and wealthy political contributors. It will be a challenge to put this city back together."
Mayor James K. Hahn says the Nov. 5 election will put an end to secession as a political issue. If Measures F (Valley secession) and H (Hollywood secession) are defeated, he promises to lobby for a state law preventing future cityhood efforts.
But Hahn misses the point. The goal of secession is to create a municipal government responsive to the needs of ordinary residents who want more libraries, a more visible police presence, and clean and safe neighborhoods. The easiest way to prevent future secession efforts is to reform L.A.'s bloated and inefficient bureaucracy that currently serves only itself and the interests of selected property developers.
Financed by $5 million in acknowledged contributions, plus millions in services from city unions, Hahn's disingenuous anti-secession campaign has laid the foundation for continuing discontent. According to a study conducted by the Local Agency Formation Commission, a new Valley city would enjoy a budgetary surplus without having to raise any new taxes. Yet Hahn's campaign says secession is a dangerous gamble that would lead to higher taxes and diminished services.
Under the terms of separation, the L.A. Department of Water and Power would be required, as a matter of law, to provide utilities at the same rates charged the remaining parts of Los Angeles. But L.A. United insists that an independent Hollywood and Valley city would have to pay more.
The anti-secession campaign plays on the fears of the working class, insisting that newly independent cities would eliminate unions and abolish rent control. But every candidate for office in the new Valley city supports rent control and has pledged to continue the existing salary structure for municipal employees.
City Hall says that size is a virtue when it comes to securing federal and state grants, and that a large city's economies of scale result in an efficient distribution of assets. But studies conducted as a result of the secession campaign show otherwise. A 2001 survey of 44 cities by the Reason Public Policy Institute ranked Los Angeles last in efficient use of taxpayer money. This year, the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College found that, on a per capita basis, L.A. ranked below Santa Monica, Long Beach and Glendale when it came to federal funding.
City Hall does even worse when it goes after state money. San Francisco gets twice as much per capita in state money even though Los Angeles is about five times larger.
One thing Los Angeles does not lack is hyperbole. Former Mayor Richard Riordan says secession is "immoral." Hahn prophesies that secession would bring "a disaster of biblical proportion." But the defeat of secession as a political issue wouldn't eliminate the uncomfortable fact that Los Angeles lags behind other large cities in providing basic services.
Of the five largest cities in the country, Los Angeles has the fewest police and firefighters, according to a study by The Times. It resurfaces a smaller percentage of its streets each year than New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, and even ranks below Houston in branch libraries.
Secessionists blame most of Los Angeles' problems on its lavishly paid City Council, whose 15 members (paid $136,000 a year) each represent about 240,000 people. Should secession be defeated, they would push for smaller council districts or a borough system of government. Neither solution has much chance of adoption, because voters in the Valley, as well as in the Los Angeles Basin, appear reluctant to create another level of bureaucracy.
A key issue in the secession campaign has been inadequate policing. The Valley has an estimated 80 gangs with 20,000 members. Its homicide rate has soared 90% since 2000. "I pay taxes for 2,200 police, but only 1,500 are stationed in the Valley," laments Rick Rolda, assistant director of admissions at DeVry University. "Criminals are so mobile that there's no longer such a thing as a safe neighborhood."