With San Fernando Valley secession suddenly viable, the Business Journal invited community leaders and elected officials last week to discuss the reasons behind the secession movement and where it is heading.
Participating in the forum were L.A. City Council members Laura Chick and Richard Alarcon, Jeff Brain, co-chairman of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment; attorney David Fleming, chairman of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, and Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Association.
Question: Does the Valley have the makings of a city, irrespective of whether or not you believe it should secede?
Chick: I very much think the Valley could be a separate city that in terms of logistics and figuring out the infrastructure problems, and setting up its own separate government, that’s absolutely feasible.
Alarcon: Frankly, I’m surprised that anyone would even ask the question. The San Fernando Valley has every reason to believe that it could be a separate city. The decision about whether to secede isn’t based on whether or not it could be a city.
Fleming: I think that certainly you’ve got the critical mass in the Valley to form a separate city. We have a higher per-capita income per household than the rest of Los Angeles. We have higher individual income per capita than the rest of Los Angeles, and it clearly seems that we have an enormous edge in forming a separate city if that’s what we choose to do. So, yeah, sure we can be a city.
Brain: The Valley clearly could be a separate city, and could be a great city. It would be the sixth largest city in the country. When you look at Burbank’s 99,000 people, West Hollywood’s 36,000 people clearly the Valley has a tremendous base with which to become a separate city. The infrastructure issues, the division of assets, the liabilities they’re all something to work through. But there is a process in place. It’s a well thought-out, reasoned process, just like a divorce. And those will be hatched out through LAFCO and the Valley, I believe, will become a separate city.
Lucente: I agree that the Valley could be a separate city. The question is whether it really has the will to be a separate city.
Q: Does anyone detect a will in the Valley to secede?
Lucente: What the secession effort has begun to tap into is that feeling of not being a part of a greater whole, and the disenfranchisement, essentially, of the Valley. I think people, though, need to know the complete story before they will really fully commit to support or not support secession. And economics plays a big, big role in what people think and what they will decide. And I think that remains to be seen. Is there the frustration out there that is fueling this drive? Absolutely, and for good reasons.
Brain: It’s a tremendous education process before you ask people yes or no. And, again, the LAFCO process we’ll have a study that will be done. It’s our commitment to the people of the Valley not to ask them to vote on that issue until they have all that information available to them and can make a good decision.
Fleming: This city has grown to include so many communities today that feel disenfranchised, that feel isolated. And for that reason I think that we’ve got to look at a restructuring of city government. And I would hope that that would happen before secession. But I also think, at the same time, we have to keep looking at secession as a possibility.
Alarcon: There is a vast and deep political will to gain more control of our future. And the issue is whether or not secession will provide that in a greater sense than some alternative that we hope to see in the way of charter reform.
Q: Is the interest in this issue greater than the interest, say, in charter reform?
Fleming: Yes, because people understand secession more than they understand charter reform.
Brain: Charter reform goes to the ballot in 1999. We go in the year after, hopefully, in 2000 (with a vote on Valley secession). If there is proper and good charter reform meaningful reform then people will have the right to vote no on secession and will do so, probably. But if there is not good, meaningful charter reform on the ballot in 1999, then people will vote yes.
Lucente: I think it’s one thing to use the idea of seceding from the city of Los Angeles to fuel charter reform. Charter reform is, in and of itself, a significant process that the city is going through. And it’s very clear that the general populace of the city of Los Angeles was not engaged in the charter reform effort, nor did they really understand it. And I think while people do understand the idea of secession in a very broad sense, I don’t think they really understand what it means. And I would say, “Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.”
Fleming: (to Alarcon and Chick) Let me ask a question of you guys: Do you find that the secession movement has had any effect on your position and your leverage in the Council to get things for the Valley?
Chick: One of my concerns is that there will be a growing sentiment on the part even of some elected officials who say, “You know what? I’m not going to fly well out in the Valley. Let the Valley become a separate city. I’ll take what’s left.” And I think there’s a sentiment on the part of some citizens on the other side of the hill that call this whining, which I always find so insulting. “Who needs them? Let’s get rid of them.”
I’ve even heard the theory put forth that we’re costing them money, and that they think when the study comes out, that it will show that they’d be better off without us. One of the things that I think absolutely needs to happen the next time we do redistricting is to take a look, first of all, at keeping communities together, in terms of council districts.
Alarcon: To answer David’s question, I have absolutely used the issue to leverage certain things. I can give you some specific examples. First of all, (getting) the empowerment zone (to include Pacoima). But there were also some comical things. I remember when LAHSA the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority presented a draft of their budget for homeless services, and there was nothing in the San Fernando Valley. And I was vice-chairing the committee with Mark Ridley-Thomas, and I looked at the list, and I said, “There’s nothing in the San Fernando Valley.” And Mark Ridley-Thomas threw up his hands in the committee and said, “Just give money to Pacoima, because we don’t want to go down this road again.”
Q: Any closing comments?
Chick: I think the biggest step and the most significant step and valuable step regarding the secession movement has been, as Jeff calls it, the movement for self-determination, and the removing of the ability for the council to veto. Secondly, the interest in secession can serve as a source of momentum for seeking to improve our governance through real and meaningful charter reform. But in terms of, does it have broad and deep support at this current time, I certainly do not see that it does. And I am doubtful that in the near future it’s going to. I think so much depends on the revealing of factual information, which will come as part of the process.
Fleming: I believe that public apathy about government is really the result of government and the disconnect between the people and government. I think this: Secession is like an announcement that a new car is coming out. You haven’t seen it yet, sounds exciting, you want to take a look at it, you want to kick the tires, you want to test drive it. First of all, you want to find out the price. We don’t even know that. But it’s clearly something you want to take a look at. And I think that’s where the Valley is right now. If you put it to a vote today, they wouldn’t vote to secede because they don’t know.
Lucente: The issue of secession is very complex, yet very simple from the eyes of residents. Ultimately I think the issue of secession will be viewed in very simple terms, and I think it will be viewed in terms of how it hits your pocketbook. I think that will be the ultimate deciding factor on secession.