Debate Swirls on Motives Behind Borough Scheme


Staff Reporter

Smokescreen or compromise?

With the threat of secession now looming over the City of Los Angeles, the oft-discarded notion of boroughs has suddenly become a hot concept as are the motivations behind it.

Proponents say they merely want to give L.A. voters another option besides an up-or-down vote on secession. But others, mostly secessionists, call it a diversionary tactic designed to confuse voters.

As of last week, there was no certainty that a boroughs proposal would even wind up on the ballot. A consensus had yet to develop around a single proposal to challenge the secession measures.

Two plans have been put forward: one fully-formed from former state Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, the other in more of a concept stage from councilmembers Wendy Greuel and Janice Hahn.

The Hertzberg proposal calls for nine boroughs, each with five districts. The five district representatives would choose a borough president from among their ranks, and the nine borough presidents would convene once every two weeks to discuss citywide issues, replacing the City Council. Each borough would have operational and financial control over certain city services, like libraries and parks; other services like the planning department and the airports would remain citywide.

The Greuel-Hahn proposal would commit the city to a system of boroughs within a certain amount of time after the Nov. 5 vote, with details being worked out after the vote.

Greuel and Hahn have been in discussions with Hertzberg to develop a unified plan. The Council has until the first week of August to put a measure on the Nov. 5 ballot.

"That would mean that the Council would have to give up much, if not all, of its power, which I think is unlikely unless those councilmembers are convinced that secession is going to pass," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, referring to the Hertzberg proposal. "If they have reason to think they can defeat secession on its own merits, I don't think they'll go for this."

Nonetheless, a boroughs plan is being pushed by three councilmembers Greuel, Hahn and Tom LaBonge while four other councilmembers are termed out next year and thus have no personal stake in retaining power.

Confuse voters?

If the Council votes to place a boroughs measure on the ballot, it will quickly change the tenor of the secession campaign. That's why some secession supporters are saying that a boroughs proposal would be nothing more than a smokescreen designed to confuse the voters.

"There are certain people down at City Hall who would use any trick possible to confuse the voters and defeat cityhood," said Richard Katz, a former state Assemblyman and Valley VOTE board member. "The Hertzberg proposal does have some merit, but I wouldn't hold my breath for anything that definitive ever making it on the ballot. We're likely to get more empty promises of studies and deadlines."

Placing a measure on the ballot to create just enough confusion to defeat another measure is nothing new. In 1914, the liquor industry placed a counter-initiative on the state ballot to stop a prohibition measure. Although it had some restrictions on the sale of liquor, it also contained language overturning a total ban. The counter-initiative passed.

In 1990, environmentalists, with strong backing from then-state Assemblyman Tom Hayden, put the so-called "Big Green" initiative on the state ballot; the measure would have placed strict environmental controls on a wide range of industries. Business groups came back with their own initiative, dubbed "Big Brown," that would have provided more flexible goals. Both measures lost, but business claimed victory for their ability to stop the "Big Green" initiative.

In 1996, business groups placed Proposition 207 on the ballot, aimed at closing loopholes allowing for the filing of what they regarded as frivolous class-action lawsuits. Securities fraud attorneys, led by William Lerach, then placed Proposition 211 on the ballot to expand the ability to file securities fraud class-action suits. Both failed by overwhelming margins as neither measure garnered significant grass-roots support.

But counter-initiatives have proven less successful in stopping populist-driven measures.

Take the case of Propositions 8 and 13 on the June 1978 ballot, the parallel most often cited in the secession campaign. Proposition 13 was the grass-roots campaign led by the late Howard Jarvis to lower property taxes. As that initiative looked almost certain to qualify, the state Legislature hurriedly placed Proposition 8 on the ballot, which would also have lowered property taxes, but to a lesser extent. It was a close campaign, until sharply higher property tax bills arrived in people's mailboxes and Prop. 13 surged ahead to victory.

Back in 1988, the insurance industry and trial lawyers put on four initiatives aimed at stopping the consumer-driven Prop. 103 rollback of auto insurance rates. All four failed, while Prop. 103 squeaked by with 51 percent support.

Legitimate proposal

"When you have an initiative that taps into a deep public anger over something the classic cases being Proposition 13 in 1978 and Proposition 103 in 1988 nothing can stop it, not even multiple counter-initiatives," said Stern.

Greuel insists that the boroughs idea was not being used to derail secession. "This will be a real boroughs proposal, committing the city to setting up a system of boroughs. It will be a genuine alternative to secession," she said.

And Hertzberg said last week that he won't support a watered down version of his proposal. "It has to be the real deal, with a real dispersal of power from City Hall," he said.

Key to any campaign for a boroughs system will be whether L.A. Mayor James Hahn comes on board.

"The mayor is evaluating the borough proposals to see if and when he will take a position," a spokesman said. "Right now, though, he is more focused on making sure that neighborhood councils work."

If the mayor and the anti-secession campaign embrace a boroughs proposal, it could provide a substantive alternative to a strictly negative campaign that tears down the assumptions behind the secession drive.

"It can be both a counter-initiative and a serious proposal in its own right," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.

Secession opponents and even some independent observers say that the support for secession is soft and could be moved by a well-thought-out counter-proposal.

"There's no question there's a genuine frustration with government," said Mara Marks, associate director for the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "But do people see secession as the only answer to those problems? That's what we don't know yet."

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