Land of 'Valley-Speak' Seeks To Secede From L.A., for Sure

For San Fernando Valley, it's a matter of common cents

Jay Leno suggests calling it "Off-Ramp Acres." Or perhaps "Newer Jersey" or "Unknown Actorville."

The San Fernando Valley, a divot of 1.26 million people and endless mini-malls north of downtown Los Angeles, has occupied a distinct if not always distinguished place in the national consciousness. In the 1950s, it was considered a model of a new American suburbia. More recently, it was known as the fount of a teenage mall culture that gave the world "Valley-speak." Like, wow.

Now the sprawling area north of the Santa Monica Mountains is once again fashioning a national profile - this time as a center of secessionism.

Chafing under what local officials call inadequate attention from a city too large to govern itself, Valley activists are preparing to make a clean break with Los Angeles and set out on their own. If they succeed, they will create America's sixth-largest city.

The move would alter the identity of Los Angeles, but also send a message to city halls nationwide: They must deal with the vastly differing needs of their communities or risk a revolt from disaffected neighborhoods.

"I'm touting this as the new Prop. 13," says Howard Husock, a public-policy expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, referring to the California initiative that sparked tax reform in state after state. This is "a trend that will force cities around the country to look at their structures, which are essentially inherited and haven't been examined in a very long time."

Parts of other major cities have attempted to secede before - most notably Roxbury in Boston and Staten Island in New York. In fact, the Village of Key Biscayne, Fla., succeeded in separating from Miami six years ago.

But the Valley's secession would be the most significant move yet. That's because a recent California law removes the Los Angeles City Council's power to veto a Valley secession vote - a common stumbling block in any California community's attempt to break off on its own, and because the Valley is such a huge area.

To be sure, the Valley won't become its own entity anytime soon. A vote will not happen before 2000, and a majority of Los Angeles voters will have to approve it.

The desire to remain separate from a larger body is natural, say experts. Whether it's a community that wants to secede from an established municipality or a suburb that wants to foil annexation by a nearby city, many see a new "local government [as] closer to the needs and desires of the people," says Mr. Husock.

In fact, the number of municipalities in the United States has increased steadily from 16,807 in 1952 to 19,279 in 1992. "I already have remote control in the form of the county government, the state government, and the federal government," says Carl Leviss of the California Association of Detaching Cities.

The Valley's growing angst with Los Angeles stems in part from the city's scale. Los Angeles could easily contain the cities of St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, and the borough of Manhattan within its boundaries. Its population, 3.6 million, is larger than that of 25 states.

But the primary problem, many say, is taxes. The Valley's two-dozen-plus communities generate 38 percent of Los Angeles's taxes, but the city returns only 21 percent of revenues.

Furthermore, Los Angeles is governed by a 15-member city council - a number unchanged since 1876, when the city's population was 9,000. Each council member now represents about a quarter of a million people, and only four members represent predominantly Valley districts.

The result, critics say, is a laundry list of inequalities. For example, only 1.2 million of the city library's 6.6 million volumes are in Valley libraries, and although the area has given $1.3 billion to the city over the past 10 years for transportation improvements, the Valley still has no rapid-transit system.

Meanwhile, a commission to reform the Los Angeles city charter has begun to deal with these and other citywide problems. And that could could stem the tide.

"We're not a bunch of radicals," says Jeff Brain of Valley Vote, a coalition that organized to support citizens' right to vote on the issue of secession. "This could be settled by creating a charter with boroughs that have autonomy over local issues.... We can always back off."

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