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Down to the Nitty-Gritty

September 01, 2002

Labor Day weekend launches the lawn signs, mailbox fliers and TV ads that mark the final push of an increasingly year-round election season. The biggest decision by far facing Los Angeles voters Nov. 5 is one they've heard about, in one form or another, since the 1970s: whether to keep the city united or break it apart. Leaders of the San Fernando Valley secession movement campaigned for five years to get a breakup measure on the ballot, joined at the last minute by advocates of Hollywood secession.

Thankfully, polls suggest that the voters haven't tuned out. They realize that a split like this carries big risks. A Times poll released in early July showed secession failing citywide and in Hollywood, with support in the Valley at 52%. To pass, it must win both in the areas petitioning to secede and citywide.

The city, no doubt to secession leaders' credit, is paying more attention to Valley concerns, from potholes to permits. Redistricting produced another Valley-only City Council seat. The Valley's newfound power should help erase the stepchild syndrome that secession aimed to cure.

Some of the more specific secession claims are harder to credit. Secession leaders argue that the 1.4-million-resident Valley can succeed as a stand-alone city if Burbank, with a tenth the Valley's population, can. But it's not that simple. The Valley has been a part of Los Angeles since 1915, when it was mainly citrus orchards and open fields. The question is what it would cost--in money, time, headaches, disruption--to carve off 40% of a city that shares everything from history to sewage lines.

Under the terms on the ballot, Los Angeles would continue to provide all services to a new Valley city until at least July 1, 2004, because the new city would not have a police force or any other infrastructure in place. How much longer that arrangement would continue is anyone's guess. How it would improve services in either the Valley or what remains of Los Angeles is a mystery.

The ballot measure also calls for a new Valley city, besides paying for these services, to pay so-called alimony to the remaining Los Angeles for 20 years to make up for lost tax revenues. Secession advocates see such a payment as proof that the Valley doesn't get its "fair share" of services, even though every city uses taxes from better-off neighborhoods to help deliver basic services to poorer ones. In these days of tanking stock markets and state and federal deficits, it's hard to believe we are even talking about alimony payments, new bureaucracies and the inevitable lawsuit costs.

Like any big, diverse and powerful city, L.A. could always stand improvement. Voters in recent years have already approved literally hundreds of reformist changes, from term limits to neighborhood councils to decentralized planning boards. More sweeping possibilities, including a division of the city into semi-autonomous boroughs, should remain under discussion. Breaking up Los Angeles is not the only option, and certainly not the best option, for reform-minded voters.

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