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Breaking away? L.A.'s coming vote on independence for the valley

By Steve Lilienthal
web posted July 8, 2002

An interesting vote will take place in Los Angeles this November; one that conservative activists in other large states and communities should take a serious look at. And given the fact that Americans have just celebrated the anniversary of our own nation's declaration of independence from a much larger and distant ruling power, now is a very good time to start paying attention to this coming referendum battle.

Los Angeles will vote on whether the San Fernando Valley will be able to secede from it. As the Los Angeles Times has remarked, voters will be deciding whether L.A. should become the first big city in the country to divide itself up.

A Los Angeles Times poll that was published last week shows Valley voters in favor of breaking away from L.A. by a 52 per cent to 37 per cent margin -- after they heard the pros and cons of the divorce. However, better not start making plans to visit the new city of the San Fernando Valley just yet because the poll also showed that when the rest of L.A.'s voters are counted, the pro-independence movement comes up short 38 per cent to 47 per cent. Because the whole city votes on secession, the pro-Valley independence movement has their work cut out for them. [A similar movement to promote the secession of Hollywood fares less well in the poll.]

While the anti-Valley independence forces have the upper hand in the polls at least for now, conservatives owe the independence drive a close look given their movement's own belief that government works best when it is smaller and more accountable to the very citizens it is supposed to serve.

If the Valley were to succeed in its drive for independence, Valley Independence Campaign Chairman Richard Katz talks of having the newly created city develop a borough plan to further decentralize government. The Times poll shows that the driving force behind the significant independence sentiment involves the desire by many Valley residents for more responsive government. For years, the Valley has considered itself short-changed in services and ignored by downtown L.A.'s power brokers. This sentiment for more responsive government was made clear in the Times story on the poll.

One Valley resident and Times poll respondent noted that she had made complaints to the city about a clogged drain pipe on her block only to have nothing happen.

"A Valley city would be the sixth-largest city in the country and if L.A. treats it so shabbily - which they do -- we might as well try it on our own," said the respondent, a retired high school teacher.

According to the pro-independence Valley Vote webpage the Valley has 35 per cent of L.A.'s population and represents half of its geographic area. Valley Vote says their area of L.A. has far fewer public libraries and police and fire stations per square mile than the city of L.A. at-large. Emergency calls for police and fire services are responded to less quickly in the Valley.

Many -- not all -- supporters of secession doubt that independence would lead to lower taxes or spending in the newly created Valley city government. Nor will the vote create a new school system. The newly created Valley city would still be part of the Los Angeles Unified School District -- and all of its problems and bureaucracy. But a new Valley city -- if approved by the voters -- would at least present voters with a strong opportunity to exert more control over government policies involving spending and taxes, and management of services. That, in itself, would be valuable.

Predictably, the anti-independence movement has been playing the race card, portraying the independence movement as one in which white Valley residents want to divorce themselves from downtown L.A.'s more diverse population.

Nice try, and given the resources of the anti-independence movement, they may succeed in distorting reality. However, as East-West News Service correspondent David DeVoss wrote in The Los Angles Times on June 30th: "...the San Fernando Valley is anything but a white enclave. More than 158,000 Asians live here, nearly one-third of them Filipino...In the areas hoping to secede, the Anglo and Latino populations are roughly equal. About one-third of the Valley's 1.7 million people are immigrants..." The L.A. Times poll found that throughout the city, Latino voters oppose secession -- 45 per cent against to 36 per cent in favor. However, in the Valley, a majority of Latino voters support independence. But the pro-Valley independence movement will have to overcome some tough obstacles. Already, L.A.'s mayor, Ken Hahn, backed by the downtown 'power' establishment, is campaigning against the breakup, using the typical fear arguments of impending fiscal doom. As one of the Hollywood secessionists put it, Hahn will be waging a "24/7" effort paid for at taxpayer expense.

Organized labor is getting into the act -- predictably against the independence effort, even though the Times survey found that current opposition to secession among union household members falls just below the majority mark and a significant 34 per cent back breaking away from L.A.

Right now, the pro-Valley independence campaign is more low-key, relying on coffee parties to generate support, still focusing more on grassroots efforts. However, they have signed up a respected campaign strategist in Ben Goddard, known as the creator of the "Harry and Louise" television spots that helped to drive a stake through the heart of Bill and Hillary Clinton's health care plan.

What may end up doing in the drive for Valley independence is the Times poll's finding that over 60 per cent of the city's voters are content with how things are right now in L.A. Even if the independence movement fails, some good -- and the emphasis should be on the word "some" -- may already be coming out of their efforts.

The City Council in L.A. has before it a plan that dices up the current city into boroughs with elected councils in an attempt to provide more local management and accountability when it comes to services and even zoning laws. That plan would be a competitor with the Valley independence movement if council were to place it on the November ballot. It presents nothing comparable to the opportunity that full-fledged independence for the Valley represents in providing a significant number of current L.A. residents with a truly local government.

If the L.A. City Council fails to give the borough plan the green light for the November ballot, its leading advocate, state Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg, talks about then trying to have it placed on the March 2003 ballot. He may very well have to because, as The Los Angeles Daily News, noted in a July 3rd editorial: "Seven of the 15 members [of city council] are adamantly opposed to the boroughs, some of them boasting they haven't even bothered to look at the Hertzberg plan."

Valley independence may not be the cure that voters in Los Angeles opt for this November to overcome the lack of accountability from the government of a sprawling city with a population larger than 25 states. But the Valley independence movement's ability to have their effort be taken seriously should at least help to promote reforms that can achieve more flexibility and accountability in state and local government, both in and outside of southern California. If that proves to be the case, then the effort by the pro-Valley independence movement will have been well worth it. And if Katz and company are able to achieve a surprise victory, then the whole nation will profit from the courage of L.A. voters to experiment with giving a significant percentage of their citizenry the independence to achieve greater local control and accountability.

Steve Lilienthal handles media relations for the Free Congress Foundation.

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