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LA to Vote on Splitting City - 2002-10-05

Los Angeles, with 3.5 million residents, is the second largest city in the United States (after New York). In November, it could drop to number 3, if a move succeeds to split the city into separate jurisdictions. Los Angeles residents will decide November 5, whether or not to create a new city in the San Fernando Valley.

Fifty years ago, the area north of Los Angeles consisted mostly of orange groves. Through the 1950s, developers built new housing, and migrants fleeing frigid East Coast winters moved West to put down roots in the San Fernando Valley.

Some valley residents say that, today, the suburban dream is fading. The critics suggest Los Angeles has become two cities, separated by Mulholland Drive, a street that winds east to west through the Hollywood Hills. Supporters of secession say one side gets its full share of city services, and the other does not.

Lawyer David Fleming supports Valley secession, which he says will correct disparities, for example, in city funds for improving neighborhoods. "For every $1 of redevelopment money spent in the valley, $10 are spent south of Mulholland. This is the case, even though the Valley has half the area of the city of Los Angeles and nearly 40 percent of the city's population. It get only one tenth of the city's redevelopment money," he says. "And that's indicative of the city's priorities."

Mr. Fleming, a Valley resident who spoke at a recent forum, says the San Fernando Valley has less than a quarter of the city's police force, and ambulance response times are slower.

Rusty Hammer of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce says Valley residents have real concerns, but secession is not the answer. He says a separate city bureaucracy would place new rules on businesses. And he says splitting the city will not solve problems like crowded highways and air pollution, which are shared by people in all parts of the city. "By creating these two new cities, we're creating new elected officials, new bureaucracies, more people with turf to protect, more people with special interests that will make it more and more difficult to bring the region together to deal with these important issues that have to be solved on a regional basis," he says.

Another Valley resident, former California State Assemblyman Richard Katz, is a leader in the secession movement, who says the new city would have smaller council districts and more attentive political leaders.

In the months before the election, Los Angeles officials have launched an effort to hold the city together, which Mr. Katz says has led to a new responsiveness to the Valley. "You can get your pothole filled," he says. "You can get your street paved. You can get your trees trimmed. We've had more service in the last six months in the San Fernando Valley than the last 10 years combined." Mr. Katz says if secession fails, Los Angeles officials will return to business as usual.

Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn, a strong opponent of secession, addressed the issue recently, as he introduced the man he has chosen as the new Los Angeles police chief. The mayor made the introduction not at city hall, but in the San Fernando Valley. Chief-designate William Bratton promised to focus his resources on the Valley's growing crime problem, and said he opposes a Valley city. I can't even begin to image why you'd want to secede from LA," he said. "Seriously, it's one of the great cities of the world. Why weaken it by secession?"

There are two secession measures on the November ballot in Los Angeles. One would create a city in the small community of Hollywood. A second would create a city in the San Fernando Valley. Polls suggest both measures will fail. A slight majority in the Valley favors secession, but the measure must be approved by a majority of voters in all of Los Angeles. Citywide, only 40 percent of voters approve of either measure.

Jack Kyser, of the Economic Development Corporation of Los Angeles, says his organization has not taken a stand on secession, but he says that pass or fail, the secession issue may yet change the way the city is governed. "I think you have a lot of pros and cons that have been put on the table," he says. "But the key question, which nobody has really asked yet is, if it fails at the ballot box, will the secessionists go away? They will not, and you'll continue to have this rump action and a lot of disruption, people pointing fingers and complaining. So, this is an ongoing issue for the city of Los Angeles."

And the threat of secession would remain, unless the concerns of Valley residents are satisfied. If the San Fernando Valley does become an independent city, it would be the sixth largest in the United States, rivaling Phoenix, Arizona.