Secession Effort Petering Out, Campaign Shifts to Valley Voters

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

The Nov. 5 ballot measure for San Fernando Valley secession appears headed for defeat at the polls, but it could turn out to be a hollow victory for L.A. Mayor James Hahn and the anti-secession forces.

If secession wins in the Valley but loses citywide as current polls indicate the city could be faced with 4-in-10 voters wanting out. Those sentiments, if not properly responded, might fuel another secession drive.

"If the secession measure wins in the Valley but loses citywide, mark my words, secession will be back," said L.A. City Council president and secession opponent Alex Padilla. "It will be led by residents and the Daily News saying that 'We wanted to leave, but you downtown folks wouldn't let us.'"

Padilla and other secession opponents are stepping up their campaign with the aim of stopping secession in the Valley itself. That, they believe, is the only way to effectively knock out the breakaway movement.

"You absolutely can't have a vote in which folks outside the Valley dictate to the people inside the Valley," said Kenneth Lombard, president of Johnson Development Corp. and Magic Johnson Theatres who has advised Hahn on economic development issues. "As a Valley resident, I can tell you that would make this city ungovernable."

In most elections, a defeat at the polls is the end of the story. But the secession vote is unusual because it's really two ballot measures in one. To win, secession must garner a 50 percent-plus-one majority in the area seeking to secede and 50-percent-plus-one in the city as a whole.

Valley discontent

"The city will have an area containing 40 percent of its electorate that's shown considerable discontent," said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton who was executive director of one of L.A.'s charter reform commissions.

That discontent could itself be fuel for further separatist movements.

"If the Valley votes clearly and convincingly for secession, you will see continuing efforts on the part of the secession movement founders to separate in some way from the downtown establishment," said local political consultant Richard Lichtenstein. He speculated that anything over a 10-point victory margin for secession in the Valley would be interpreted as a mandate for further action.

A Los Angeles Times poll released earlier this month showed considerable slippage in support for a new Valley city, with only 38 percent supporting it citywide and a bare majority supporting it in the Valley itself.

Richard Katz, chair of the Valley Independence Committee and a member of the executive board of Valley VOTE, said the secession campaign would mount an all-out effort to get a high Valley turnout for secession.

"We need to be in the 60 percent support range in the Valley to win citywide and we have a Valley-wide effort under way to achieve that," Katz said. "We're not going to concede any part of the Valley."

Up and down support

Harvey Englander, executive vice president with the MWW Group's L.A. office, said defeating secession in the Valley won't be easy, noting that some of his own polling done earlier this year put support as high as 60 percent.

Ultimately, Englander said, he believes secession will garner more than 50 percent of the vote within the Valley. "The only question is how much over 50 percent. If it's up around 60 percent, that's a mandate for it coming back again. But if it's only 51 percent or 52 percent, then I think that will spell the end of secession for a very long time," he said.

Just three months ago, as the Local Agency Formation Commission was preparing to place the San Fernando Valley secession measure on the ballot, the momentum toward secession looked unstoppable. An L.A. Times poll in March showed secession just a single percentage point from passage, while the anti-secession campaign was nowhere to be seen.

At that point, many city and business leaders who had come out against secession were openly doubtful that the effort could be stopped citywide. They urged Hahn and his L.A. United campaign to get on track before the secession tide washed over them.

Several city councilmembers, concerned that secession would win at the polls, began hastily crafting a boroughs measure for the same Nov. 5 ballot to give voters dissatisfied with city government another alternative. The boroughs initiative collapsed two weeks ago amid opposition from Hahn and Padilla.

Now, though, it's the secession forces that are on the run unable to raise the millions of dollars needed to mount an effective campaign and slow to put forward their vision of what a new Valley city would look like.

A founding member of this secession drive, Van Nuys Homeowner Association President Don Schultz, recently defected. And two weeks ago, it was revealed that secession leaders had considered a deal to postpone a secession vote in exchange for putting a boroughs plan on this November's ballot.

That same week, state Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys, a charismatic figure who could have greatly boosted interest in secession, decided not to run for mayor of a Valley city and instead supported the anti-secession campaign.

On top of all this, on July 11, Valley VOTE Chairman Richard Close said he might initiate a lawsuit if secession is rejected citywide but passes in the Valley. This was interpreted as an implicit admission that it's highly unlikely Valley secession would win citywide.

"Once the campaign to defeat secession knows it's going to win citywide, then it concentrates its efforts in the Valley on suppressing the popularity of secession," said Englander.

The L.A. United campaign won't admit this openly, of course. "We intend to campaign in each and every corner of this city," said Kam Kuwata, consultant to L.A. United. "We are going to defeat this proposal on its merits in every part of this city."

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