Secessionist majority thinks 'the Valley' is, like, not L.A.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For lifetime San Fernando Valley resident Bob Scott, the issue is a no-brainer – except in name, he doesn't really live in Los Angeles.

"It's not so much about lack of representation and not getting our fair share of city services ... it's about having a sense of place," says the business consultant who grew up in this northernmost edge of Los Angeles sprawl.

In his 50 years here, Mr. Scott has watched ranchland and orchards morph into a polychromatic mosaic of homes, churches, recreational and industrial parks, freeways, and malls. Dubbed "America's suburb," the Valley is the spawning ground of Americana such as "Valley-girl" speak, low-rider roadsters, air-soled sneakers, and wheat-grass juice bars.

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It wants to be its own place.

And a secession measure – called city "reorganization" by proponents – is headed for the November ballot.

A Los Angeles Times poll last week suggests the secession movement, a grassroots effort that began quietly six years ago, may have gained the political support it needs to succeed. A majority of Valley residents – 55 percent – believe the region should secede, and nearly half the electorate citywide – 46 percent – agrees. By state law, at least 50 percent of city voters need to approve.

"We've sat out here languishing since 1915 as a place that since the beginning really ought to have been its own city," Scott says, naming the year the region was annexed into L.A., primarily to preserve water rights for top city business owners.

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If successful, the breakaway of the 80 Valley communities and their formation into one, yet-to-be-named city would bump Los Angeles back from second largest US city to third, behind New York and Chicago. The new Valley city would be among the largest 10 US cities.

"This has become a very serious matter from something that few thought had a chance of getting off the ground," says Larry Berg, of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics. "City officials have been ostrich-like in thinking this would go away. They better figure out why this has gotten so big and deal with it."

National and state observers say the Valley secession move is a localized matter, unique to the specific politics and geography of Los Angeles.

Indeed, Hollywood and the harbor area have also petitioned for secession and may join the Valley on the November ballot too.

"I would call this separation movement, if anything, a countertrend to what is going on nationally," says Doug Peterson, an analyst at the National League of Cities. "Elsewhere, there are more moves afoot for cities and their surrounding suburbs or counties to merge, rather than separate."

But because the area is – like other suburbs adjacent to large cities – caught between the older downtown to the south, and newer suburbs to the north and east, the secession story is a window on the development of another American-community prototype, the "midopolis."

That's an emerging collection of adjacent civic entities that tries to blend urban and suburban infrastructures, encourage both small and large businesses, and attract emerging industries.

"Because of L.A.'s size and tendency to be a leader in other nationwide social trends, the Valley secession story is important to watch for how residents try to deal with their generalized resentment of being underserved," says George Peterson, an analyst at the Urban Institute.

Set between two small mountain ranges, the Valley is divided from the rest of the city, accessible through a handful of canyon roadways and one major freeway artery that snakes in from downtown. Home to top, old-and-new American entertainment companies – Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, Dreamworks SKG – the area is also a major supplier of aerospace and defense, financial services, health care, and high-tech manufacturing.

"Valley leaders are trying to figure out how to separate out the region's cultural, political, and economic life that have for so long been subordinate to forces outside its borders," says Joel Kotkin, with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy. "For now, their problem is they know what they don't want – indifference and abuse from over the hill – but they haven't yet carved out an identity from what has become a shapeless blob of communities."

With the vote just months away, pro and con forces are coalescing around what both say will be a battle of information and misinformation. Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn is heading a coalition of labor, liberals, and city bureaucrats to challenge how the new city would tax itself, and establish such services as police, fire, sanitation, and water.

The cost of going it alone

The prosecession coalition of home and business owners is trying to illustrate how costly diluted political representation on the 15-member city council is to residents. They say residents pay $125 million more annually in taxes than is spent on the region.

The opposition counters that costs for public services are likely to be much more expensive regionwide, because civic entities won't have as much bargaining power.

"Our research is showing that there is still a tremendous amount of confusion.... We think that when they actually look at the data and consider their quality of life, voters will reject this," says Kam Kuwata consultant to the L.A. United campaign that is fighting the idea.

But residents and activists like Bob Scott remain hopeful. "Our meetings used to typically attract about 20 to 30 people, but all of a sudden [there is] standing room only," says Scott, a member of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. "We think that if people take a close look at this, they will be able to see through the smoke and mirrors."

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