YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Fairness of Voter Guide to Secession Questioned


Earlier this year, as the debate over secession heated up, a group of San Fernando Valley residents launched the Civic Forum, whose mission is to stay above the breakaway fray and provide voters with objective information.

The forum has won applause for its weekly cable television show, "Secession 101," on Channel 36. It has sent speakers to community meetings and enlisted moderators for debates on the Valley and Hollywood secession measures on the Nov. 5 ballot.

But as it prepares to distribute 50,000 "voter guides" to libraries and service organizations, the forum has been accused by some breakup advocates of harboring an anti-secession bias.

"They appear to be objective, but in reality there have been a lot of problems of having balance," said Richard Close, chairman of the secession group Valley VOTE.

Close said some panels on the cable show have been "slanted to oppose Valley cityhood." Other critics say some forum members have ties to City Hall, including its chairman, Ken Bernstein, who worked for Laura Chick when she was a council member.

Bernstein said no member of the forum's 19-member board has taken a position on secession, and that the organization does its best to play things down the middle. A sign of the forum's success, he said, is that it has received complaints from both sides.

Anti-secessionists have griped that the forum has not given them equal time on television, Bernstein said. He said each camp asked for changes in the draft of the 16-page voters booklet, but not all the requests were granted.

"This group was formed to fill a gap that many of us in the Valley saw," said Bernstein, a Sherman Oaks resident and an official with the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy, an L.A. County preservation advocacy group. "The secession debate has become so polarized, and solid balanced information was at a premium. We felt we could disseminate reliable, balanced information so the voters can make a decision."

The group's board includes Valley attorney Lee Alpert; newsletter publisher David Abel; Barry Smedberg, executive director of the Valley Interfaith Council; and Bruce Ackerman, chief executive of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

A mark of the organization's influence is that it persuaded Mayor James K. Hahn to make perhaps his only appearance with secessionists at an Oct. 19 public forum at UCLA. Hahn has rebuffed such proposals from other groups. At the UCLA session, he will not debate the secessionists face to face, but will appear after them.

The forum's most visible project is "Secession 101," which appears on cable systems that reach 70% of Los Angeles households. Installments have featured panels on the history of secession, the content of the ballot measures, boroughs as an alternative to breaking up the city, and rent control.

The program airs at 11:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. Sundays, and 8 p.m. Tuesdays.

The forum's "Secession: A Voter's Guide" is designed to complement the show. It attempts easy explanations of secession issues, and identifies some open questions, such as which laws a Valley or Hollywood city council might adopt if voters approve a breakup.

"What we are trying to show is that there is a lot we do know about what a Valley city would look like, but there are also uncertainties," Bernstein said.

But those more speculative sections of the guide have drawn fire from secession leaders such as Robert Scott, who said some sentences are "not objective" and offer the city's spin on issues.

Scott singled out this sentence: "It is uncertain whether the county of Los Angeles or the remaining city of Los Angeles would be willing to provide police, fire and other public safety services to the new Valley city on terms which the latter would find acceptable."

Scott also objected to a passage that states the city has argued that the Local Agency Formation Commission, which approved the secession measures for the ballot, "significantly underestimated the financial impact of the proposed reorganization on the remaining city."

That argument was rejected by LAFCO, Scott said.

Jeff Daar, co-chairman of the anti-secession group One L.A., said the forum has tried to be neutral on the issue.

"They are another voice," Daar said.

Los Angeles Times Articles