Staff Reporter

Until now, San Fernando Valley secession has been a topic largely confined to a core of local activists north of Mulholland Drive. Most of the rest of the city has largely ignored the issue.

But that's all about to change now that secession backers have collected more than 200,000 signatures (only 131,000 valid signatures are needed) to seek a formal study of the issue. Next month, the group Valley VOTE is expected to submit a formal application to secede from Los Angeles to the Local Agency Formation Commission.

The real debate will then begin in earnest and not just in the Valley. Other communities, from Eagle Rock to San Pedro/Wilmington to Venice, are either already circulating or are about to circulate secession petitions.

But the most serious threat remains the San Fernando Valley, primarily because of its sheer size and the fact that secession advocates are better organized there.

Starting next year and continuing into early 2000, LAFCO will be conducting a series of studies to determine whether the Valley can be financially viable as a separate city and whether it could break away without draining revenues from the city of L.A. as a whole. Those studies promise to be controversial, as they will give various scenarios for how the public assets in the Valley from water to airports to tax revenues should be divided.

"Watch these studies on the economic feasibility of secession and the costs and benefits of secession to the city," said University of California at San Diego professor Stephen Erie, who has closely tracked L.A. city government. "This will be absolutely key to determining the outcome of the secession movement."

As the result of a crucial victory for secession backers in the state Legislature two years ago, an initiative for the Valley to secede from L.A. can go directly onto the ballot once the studies are in, instead of having to first get City Council approval. This means that provided enough signatures are collected, which most experts think is a certainty an initiative could go on the ballot as early as November 2000.

More likely, a secession initiative would show up in 2002. (As part of the legislation removing the City Council's veto authority, a secession measure can only go on the ballot in even-numbered years, when turnout is generally larger.)

For such an initiative to pass, it would need to garner both a majority of voters from within the proposed boundaries of the separate city of the San Fernando Valley and a majority of all voters in the pre-existing city of Los Angeles. That means a successful vote would require about 75 percent of Valley voters and 35 percent of voters from the rest of the city, according to Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE.

City officials from Mayor Richard Riordan to members of the council had hoped that charter reform would forestall such a vote by removing many of the complaints now voiced by Valley residents about being too remote from city decision-making. In fact, L.A. elected officials repeatedly urged secession advocates to wait for charter reform before pushing ahead with their plans.

But it didn't happen. And while secession advocates had been pushing for charter reform to include neighborhood councils with decision-making authority over land-use matters, both charter reform commissions are backing neighborhood councils with advisory power only.

"Charter reform has turned out to be a bait-and-switch," Close said. "They promised real reform; instead, we are getting charter amendments, tinkering around the edges, while the real power remains downtown. I don't think there are very many people in the Valley who will say that charter reform is so good that I will no longer support cityhood for the Valley."

If that type of disenchantment with City Hall is widespread, there will be plenty of fertile ground for secession advocates in the years to come.

"The Valley secessionists have a very solid, fundamental message: self-governance and more service for their tax dollars," said L.A.-based political consultant Richard Lichtenstein. "It's a very 'me' kind of approach that has a lot of appeal, and it would likely prove easier for them to sell their message than many might think."

That could also hold true in some of the other communities considering secession, such as Eagle Rock and San Pedro/Wilmington. But these communities face a much tougher challenge in getting citywide approval for a secession.

"The Valley contains more than 40 percent of the city's total population," Close said. "That means you don't have to get as much citywide support as you would in these other, much smaller communities."

Close believes the only way for these communities to have a real shot at secession would be for them to get their secession initiatives on the same ballot as the Valley initiative. He acknowledged that this would also provide Valley secession advocates with allies around the city, thereby boosting the Valley's chances of seceding as well.

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