Leaving Los Angles

Residents of the San Fernando Valley have long referred to the rest of Los Angeles as “the other side of the hill.” A geographer might say that “the hill” is really the Santa Monica Mountains. The phrase, however, denotes more than topographical divisions. The Valley and the rest of Los Angeles have long been out of sync.

Always ten degrees hotter than oceanside Santa Monica, less polished than posh Beverly Hills, less vibrant than trendy West Hollywood, and without any downtown to speak of, the Valley has never held high status in the pecking order of Los Angeles’’s regions. Malls and fast-food joints proliferate on the gridlike avenues that cut through neighborhoods of ranch-style houses. Although it is more wealthy than most of the city, the Valley’s image of a staid bedroom community endures. But with over 1.4 million residents, the Valley is a suburb the size of a city. And in November, it may be a city comprised solely of suburbs.

A loose coalition of business and home owners has spearheaded a drive to split the valley into an independent city and free it from what they see as years of abuse by the Los Angeles city government. They argue that big-city governance in Los Angeles has failed. They accuse politicians of being beholden to special interests and subsidizing a bloated bureaucracy by extracting millions more in taxes from the valley than they return in services. They promise that a fairer, smaller government would deliver more police officers on the streets, better fire protection, a better business environment and streets and sidewalks without cracks. They extol the values of local control, promising that Valley residents will finally get “a fair share.”

On November 5, voters will decide whether to carve an independent city out of Los Angeles. But all Angelinos—not just Valley residents—will have to pass the measure to enact the largest municipal divorce in history. And polls show secession’s prospects dimming. In March, 46 percent of Angelenos favored a split. By July that number had dropped to 38 percent. And the movement’s chief strategists recently quit the campaign amid rumors of dwindling funds.

Nonetheless, secessionists have rattled Los Angeles’s political establishment by tapping into a latent—but apparently fervent—yearning by arguing for smaller government. Indeed, getting secession on the ballot represents a triumph of sorts for secessionists, many of whom have fought for a break-up since 1975 when the Committee Investigating Valley Independent City/County was first formed. That group brought exposure to calls for Valley secession that began in the first years after Los Angeles, motivated by water-rights issues, first annexed the valley. Partially spurred by a backlash against busing in public schools, the 1970s movement was quashed when the California Legislature voted to give large city governments veto power over secession, no matter the will of the voters. The repeal of that law in 1997 was a breath of life  for secessionists, who are now supported by a majority of Valley residents—notable for a movement mocked for years.

Constant have been their war cries against big city government: that it charges big business taxes, that its leaders ignore big problems, that it caters to big downtown businesses, and that it built a big concert hall only steps from City Hall while leaving the Valley without a single major cultural institution in more than 250 square miles. At its core, secession is really an argument against bigger cities being better cities.

Figuring prominently in secessionists’ arguments is the theory that Valley secession would end years of over taxation and underservice for Valley residents. A study by the Los Angles County Local Agency Formation Commission, which agreed to put secession on the ballot, showed that the Valley annually paid $127.7 million more in taxes than it received in city services. Such an imbalance, secession’s leaders argue, is a clear sign that a vote for secession is a vote for fairness.

But there is a catch. Under state law, any new “Valley City” would have to pay the remnants of Los Angeles “alimony” of exactly that figure in the first year of cityhood, with gradually declining payments for the next 20 years. Secession-backers claim that the increased efficiencies of a smaller government would allow for the payments without hurting service levels or requiring higher taxes. Opponents of secession, however, argue that the combined costs of alimony and starting a government from scratch would bankrupt a nascent and vulnerable government. In a moment of excess, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn predicted secession could lead to “a disaster of biblical proportions.”

Indeed, a powerful coaltion has coalesced behind Hahn. He has launched a well-funded anti-secession campaign, and three city council members have founded a similar effort. In the war of endorsements, the anti-secessionists have a commanding advantage, claiming the support of big names in business and religion. Even Magic Johnson has joined the cause.

Deriders of cityhood argue that the Valley’s brand-new government would actually mean more government bureaucracy, not less. They point to regional problems like Los Angeles’s short supply of water, inefficient public transit, and failing public schools and argue that dividing government up into smaller and smaller blocks will only push sweeping problems further beyond its reach. They also imply selfishness on the part of secessionists, alleging that its residents are trying to shirk their duty to the city’s poor, as the Valley contains 30 percent of the city’s population, but only 20 percent of those living in poverty.

Anti-secessionists claim that the miniscule gains Valley residents might achieve with independence would not offset the damage done to the Southern California region as a whole.

Kam Kuwata, Hahn’s chief anti-secession strategist disputed the claim that the valley would end up better off, questioning whether the valley is really getting less than they pay for.

“I don’t know how they’ve done the analysis of dollar-in, dollar-out,” he said. “When you set up a 911 system, for example, some do the analysis on the basis of phone lines running to different areas, but they don’t take into account the costs of the whole system.” He also said that inequities of service balance out across different city departments.

“Some areas of the city, like the Valley, have lower concentrations of crime. So there are fewer police assigned to them,” Kuwata said. “But the Valley is hotter, and it tends to be more susceptible to fires, so the rest of the city is subsidizing the Valley when it comes to the fire department.”

Anti-secessionists also argue that more bureaucratic hurdles complicates problem-solving.

“You can’t just chop the pie in pieces and say you’re capable of doing the exact same things you were capable of doing before,” Ellen Sandt, City Hall’s point person on secession, told the Los Angeles Times in October. “There are a ton of practical issues to be worked out.”

Among them is the very practical issue of exacting political favors—and dollars—from the federal and state governments. Both the valley city, and the shrunken Los Angeles, would carry less political clout in Sacramento and Washington, anti-secessionists argue, meaning fewer federal dollars for both cities.

Dividing Los Angeles’s resources between the two cities could also make it harder to coordinate the type of massive response necessary in the face of natural disasters and terrorism.

“Ever since Bush 41 said, ‘Read my lips, no new taxes,” I think people have had reason to be a little skeptical of getting something for nothing,” Kuwata said.

But theories on economies of scale in government and the contradiction of condemning big government while proposing to remedy it with the creation of more government do not distract secessionists from their calls for fairness. They point to streetlights that go unrepaired for months as concrete evidence in support of their claim that City Hall just doesn’t respect the Valley.

Less publicly minded motivations may be at work as well. Secession’s biggest boosters are Valley business owners who envy the symbiotic relationship between downtown politicians and downtown developers. Secessionists scorn those cozy relations, but it remains to be seen whether Valley business leaders would attempt to co-opt their new city’s government. Meanwhile, the President of Valley VOTE, the grassroots organization fueling the secession drive, is himself a failed candidate for Los Angeles’s City Council and has been accused of harboring ambitions for a prime job with the Valley city’s government.

Self-interest may be the basis for much of secession’s support among voters, too. Secessionists declare that Valley residents would pay lower taxes and get better services if they were no longer forced to subsidize the rest of the city.

Kuwata attributes secession’s popularity to that theme, despite Times polls showing that most Valley residents are happy with the way things are going in their particular neighborhoods.

“You have a [Valley-based] newspaper called the Daily News and you have a few whiners saying, ‘We’re not getting a fair share,’ and people believe it,” he said. “If they keep hearing it again and again, at some point people are going to say, ‘‘Yeah, I believe it.’”

The liberal-minded rejoinder of city unionists is that the well-heeled will always pay more to government than they receive in tangible benefits, but the societal ills attacked with their support are worth fighting. Indeed, the very notion of a city relies on a common geography engendering a sense of common purpose. Valley secession, conversely, relies on calculations and voters’ lack of neighborly attachment to those who share their city.

The secession movement’s embrace of that mindset is perhaps the greatest threat to the current model of a city. If each geographic area currently giving more than it gets were to feel justified in striking out on its own, it’s hard to see a logical end to the process.

“It’s bad in its implications,” said Harold Meyerson, political editor of L.A. Weekly. “The whole notion that if a government or political entity is having problems that the solution is to break it up is just a really troubling precedent. Who’s to say where it ends?”

Valley secession is, in fact, only one of two such questions on November’s ballot—Hollywood has undertaken a similar campaign. That movement, however, appears doomed. Polls show that, even within Hollywood, it lacks majority support.

Carving independent cities out of Los Angeles would likely leave the poor isolated in a ghetto-ized skeleton of a city.

“The drainage of people is the drainage of funds, and the chief victims of drainage are the impoverished,” the Reverend Cecil L. Murray of the First AME Church told the Times.

Thus, secession is ultimately an issue of values. If Valley voters engineer their defection, they will be discarding the ties of civic obligation that come with proximity. Clearly, voting the poor out of their city is not a feasible solution to poverty. Nor would a new city government be devoid of bureaucracy and the pull of special interests. As tempting as such logic may be, a decision to carve what would be the nation’s sixth-largest city out of its second-largest would be a futile attempt to escape the realities of a complicated, urban environment.

Secessionists have put forward five potential names for voters to choose among for the new city. Among the choices is the hopelessly quixotic title “Camelot.” Secession leaders hope that the name will remind voters of how little Los Angeles, in its present size, resembles Camelot. The name should remind them, hoever, of how unchivalric it would be to run from the problems of an urban existence by tearing down the institutions able to face them and fight.