Los Angeles City Charter reform launched as an antidote to San Fernando Valley secession has suddenly touched off a political range war of its own, one that pits some of L.A.'s top corporate leaders against Valley activists.

The business leaders, unhappy with the recommendations of the city's two charter reform commissions, fired the first volley by bankrolling a campaign to build support for an expanded City Council.

Valley business leaders and homeowner activists many of whom have backed a more radical plan to create elected neighborhood councils to decentralize power fired back last week by agreeing to form an alliance to fight the downtown business interests.

"We're not going to put up with benevolent dictators," said Gordon Murley, president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Homeowners, which formed the coalition with the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley and the Westside Civic Foundation. "They're trying to be a monopoly. They want to be the company store."

What's all the fighting about? Next spring, Los Angeles voters are expected to cast ballots on a package of measures that could radically change city government by modifying the city's 1920s-vintage City Charter.

A charter commission appointed by the City Council has proposed modest reforms, including establishing new citizen advisory panels. An elected charter commission has suggested the more radical step of creating elected neighborhood councils which would take power from the existing City Council.

"It's about power, and it's about turf," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst for Claremont Graduate University. "The average Angeleno is not engaged in this debate. But those who are know they better get involved in shaping the city or they're going to get left out."

The prospect of dismantling City Hall has not set well with many of the city's most prominent corporate leaders.

"You could end up with 75 or 100 elected neighborhood council members and have almost anarchy in terms of running the city," said Eli Broad, chairman and chief executive of SunAmerica Inc.

A coalition of business groups including the Los Angeles Business Advisors, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Central City Association decided to pursue its own charter-reform agenda, hiring Harvey Englander of the Kamber Group Inc. to build political support for yet another alternative: expanding the 15-member City Council to 35 members.

Backers say the plan will increase representation without blowing apart the system.

"Why add a complete new level of government before trying to fix what you've got?" asked Times Mirror Co. Chief Executive Mark Willes, a member of the Los Angeles Business Advisors. "To think you can take what you have now and add a whole new layer and think it's going to work better is a little naive."

Many Valley business leaders and homeowner activists say that it's just the old downtown power elite trying to run things again. They've drawn comparisons between LABA and the old "Committee of 25," which once called the shots downtown from corporate boardrooms.

"It's all about control, who has it and who doesn't, and they (LABA) want it," said Richard Close, chairman of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, the group that is mounting a petition drive to require a study of Valley secession.

Others scoff at such notions.

"I think it's a good thing to have all these people involved," said Fernando Guerra, a political scientist who heads Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles. "For far too long the business community of L.A. has kind of distanced itself from civic affairs."

Even so, Valley activists say the failure to put elected councils on the ballot would revive the secession movement, which is still struggling to get enough signatures to force a study.

"If they decide not to put meaningful reform on the ballot, it'll be 'Go ahead and make my day.' Because it will fuel secession rhetoric like they can't even imagine," said Bob Scott, a Valley-based attorney and a member of the Los Angeles Planning Commission.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor and chairman of the elected charter reform commission, is annoyed by such talk from both the business leaders and the activists.

"We have groups coming to us and saying, 'Unless you do this, we're going to organize to defeat the charter,' " Chemerinsky said. "It's very much been a rhetoric of threats when we need conciliation and compromise."

Where is Mayor Richard Riordan in all this? Critics say he has steered clear of the fight, but that he covertly backs the business groups.

"This mayor has not given any attention or cared to meet with community leaders," charged Murley of the hillside federation.

Attorney David Fleming, a Riordan appointee to the city Fire Commission, said the mayor is in a pickle because he has strong ties to the business groups.

"He's been an insider for years. He would have a hard time going against what the insiders want," said Fleming, who is pushing his own plan to create 15 "quasi-cities," each with an elected council reporting to a 50-member master council downtown.

Riordan did not return calls for comment, but spokeswoman Noelia Rodriguez said the mayor deserves credit for originally spearheading the charter reform movement.

"The fact that charter reform is even on top of anybody's mind is directly related to the mayor's leadership," said Rodriguez. "Anyone critical of the mayor for not being a leader on charter reform is absolutely blind to the facts."

In yet another twist, the fracas now involves the region's two largest newspapers, with the Los Angeles Times taking an editorial position in favor of an expanded council and the Los Angeles Daily News beating the drum for elected neighborhood councils.

Willes, who also is publisher of the Times, has come under criticism in the Valley over his newspaper's editorial position the same position being advanced by LABA.

But he said it's "nonsense" to suggest the Times has lost its objectivity on the issue, saying that the paper's news department is completely autonomous.

The Daily News recently generated controversy of its own by disclosing after the Times got wind of it that the paper had donated $60,000 to bankroll the secession study petition drive.

The donation has opened the Daily News to criticism that it is secretly boosting secession. The newspaper's publisher, Ike Massey, did not return phone calls, but he said in a letter to readers that the paper simply wanted to ensure that secession is studied. He said news coverage was unaffected by the contribution.

Willes said he was taken aback by the Daily News' decision to become "so dramatically involved in an issue that pulls people apart rather than put them together." He declined, however, to say whether he thought the Daily News' coverage has been balanced.

"Frankly I don't read the Daily News on a regular basis," he said. "I would assume and hope their news would be independent of their editorial position."

For his part, Chemerinsky is optimistic about the charter reform process, saying the heightened debate surrounding the effort helps increase public awareness in advance of anticipated reform ballot measures next spring.

"I don't believe the process is falling apart," Chemerinsky said. "We're working as hard as possible to produce a new charter. In the short term, we just need to get past the rhetoric of threats."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.