L.A. Valley to Become, Like, Splitsville?

Will America's second-largest city split in two?

Riding the nationwide wave of voter discontent with unresponsive, centralized government, officials in the San Fernando Valley - the sprawling, middle-class suburb of Los Angeles - are pushing state legislation to help make it happen.

A bill that would smooth the path to secession won surprise approval in the state Assembly earlier this month. The measure would take away the Los Angeles City Council's power to veto secession and would leave the issue for San Fernando Valley voters to decide.

Secession efforts are not unheard of in Los Angeles, a patchwork metropolis of some 80 communities. On occasion, a community, protesting that it had been politically slighted, successfully disengaged from L.A. - although never has an area as large as the San Fernando Valley threatened to do so.

Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R), who represents the Valley's 1.3 million residents and who sponsored the secession bill, says Valley residents don't receive their fair share of government services. "It is time for the Valley to have the recognition and representation it deserves," she says. "It is time for the Valley to be its own city."

The issue moved to the front burner here after the Republican-controlled Assembly approved Ms. Boland's bill. Mirroring the Republican takeover of Congress in the fall of 1994, the GOP wrested control of California's lower legislative house this year for the first time in 25 years. Reflecting the national mood, many voters here are distrustful of what they see as government by politicians who are unresponsive to their needs.

The secession effort "has as much to do with the Republican power change in the Assembly as anything else," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "Under Democrats, this wouldn't have seen the light of day."

Laundry list of gripes

Backers of the bill are trumpeting a laundry list of gripes: diluted political representation on the City Council in recent years, as well as the loss of Valley seats on the city board of education; the thinnest coverage per population by the Los Angeles Police Department; slowest response times for fire department and paramedics; and unfair sewer and water rates.

The effort is a matter of "self-determination" for Valley residents fed up with "being subservient to city officials who don't respond to our concerns," says Guy Weddington McCreary, a Valley historian, resident, and Chamber of Commerce board member.

Even if the Boland bill were to pass in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority, the process for local sponsors is complicated, time-consuming, and politically charged, observers here say. No large US city has ever broken apart.

If it did happen, Los Angeles would become the nation's third largest city, and the San Fernando Valley by itself would rank sixth.

There have been two Valley attempts to secede since 1950. Spurred by geographic and demographic distinctions - the Valley is flanked on two sides by mountains and was settled primarily by middle-class whites as the metropolitan area grew - a small secession movement failed in the early '50s.

In the late 1970s, a strong movement called CIVIC gathered far more momentum but was eventually squashed when city lobbyists persuaded state lawmakers to give Los Angeles veto powers over such efforts. The current legislation would rescind those powers.

Emotion vs. fact?

Los Angeles resident Larry Berg, founding director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, says the sense of aggravation fueling the secession move is based more on emotion than on fact.

He welcomes new scrutiny of governance to a region already choking with nearly 90 governmental entities. But he says the major problems, in transportation, air pollution, housing, business growth, and land use, cannot be solved merely by incorporating a new city. "I think when people really look at the issue, they will find it marginal at best that the Valley can stand alone," says Mr. Berg. "What is really needed is a full-scale analysis of the whole region in terms of governance."

If the Boland bill passes the state Senate, secession supporters would need signatures of 20 percent of the Valley's registered voters. That would set in motion an independent agency to analyze whether a Valley city could support itself with adequate property taxes and license fees. The commission must also weigh financial consequences for the city left behind. Then, boundaries must be drawn, and negotiations on dividing up the area's assets must ensue.

"It's entirely possible that the process could take years and eventually go nowhere," says Ms. Jeffe.

Meanwhile, the situation is a political hot potato for key officials including Mayor Richard Riordan (R), who is up for reelection next year. Valley voters were one of his bases of support. "Riordan doesn't know what to do," says Berg. "He needs Valley support, but he also, as mayor of us all, has to be for keeping his city alive and intact."

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