By voting overwhelmingly in support of charter reform during the recent election, Angelenos at least those few who bothered to cast ballots made one thing clear: They think city government is broken and they want it fixed.
The question is whether the changes approved as part of charter reform will be enough to head off the secession movement at work in the San Fernando Valley.
Officials with Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment the group pushing for the split say no, and contend that the revamped charter doesn't go far enough in giving the Valley or other areas of L.A. real autonomy.
"If this city reformed itself, there would be no need to break away," said Jeff Brain, president of Valley VOTE. "But I don't think this charter is going to do it for people."
However, others say a lot can happen between now and 2002, when the question of Valley secession could go to voters. In the interim, charter reform, if implemented in earnest by the City Council, might take the steam out of the breakaway movement.
"We will have a good experimental period to see whether in fact the Valley and other parts of Los Angeles see a quantitative improvement in local government," said Eric Schockman, a political science professor at USC. "In the short term, the vote would indicate we have a reform-minded electorate that would appear to be receptive to secession. But in the long term, as the old slogan goes, give peace a chance. Now it's give the charter a chance."
Measure 1, which was approved by 60 percent of voters, will bring hundreds of changes to L.A. city government. Among the most significant, it gives more power to the Mayor's Office, decentralizes city planning and calls for the creation of L.A.'s first system of neighborhood councils.
Still, the fact that only 17 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots indicates a decided lack of interest about L.A. governance. Also, who's to say how people might feel about city government in 2002, the soonest the Local Agency Formation Commission could place the issue on the ballot after studying its economic impact.
Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based political consultant, said secessionists shouldn't underestimate the power of Mayor Richard Riordan in derailing the secession movement.
Riordan, an outspoken opponent of the split, enjoyed a clean sweep in the June 8 election with the passage of the charter measure he endorsed and victories for Nick Pacheco and Genethia Hayes, whom he endorsed in their respective bids for the 14th City Council District and the Los Angeles Unified School District board.
While Riordan will be out of office before secession might go to voters, Hoffenblum predicted that the mayor will now use his considerable clout to campaign against the split.
"The new wrinkle is the enormous increased power that Dick Riordan possesses as mayor," Hoffenblum said. "He's as powerful a mayor as (Tom) Bradley was at his peak, and that could very well change the whole equation."
Whether charter reform will be enough to satisfy residents might depend on how swiftly and conscientiously the council implements the measure.
"The failure of elected officials in Los Angeles to quickly implement it will feed secession," said Riordan, who helped tap wealthy executives to fund a pro-charter advertising blitz in the days before the election.
The new charter gives the council fairly wide latitude in its implementation. For instance, the measure calls for the creation of advisory neighborhood councils, but leaves it to the council to decide how its members will be selected.
The fact that the majority of the council opposed charter reform doesn't inspire confidence that members will implement the reforms quickly and fairly, said Brain.
"I wouldn't put any money on it," he said. "Many members have become so self-absorbed in their own power that they've lost sight of what they were going to accomplish when they took office."
Richard Close, chairman of Valley VOTE, said many residents were disappointed when the Appointed and Elected Charter Reform commissions signed off on a system of advisory neighborhood councils with no real decision-making power.
"Even supporters acknowledge this is a compromise charter," said Close. "It helps but it doesn't solve the structural problems of the city of Los Angeles."
Erwin Chemerinsky, chair of the Appointed Charter Reform Commission, said it's unlikely charter reform will sway those already committed to secession, but he added that it may be just enough for people still on the fence.
"My hope is people will see how it works before making a decision on secession," he said.
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