Honey, I Want a Divorce

On Nov. 27, Jeff Brain, president of Valley VOTE, will be a very happy man. That’s the day he gets to turn in the more than 195,000 signatures that will start the ball rolling on the San Fernando Valley seceding from the city of Los Angeles.

Rumblings of separatism have been heard across the San Fernando Valley for more than two decades. But it took a special vote by the state legislature in 1996 to allow Valley VOTE (Voters Organized Toward Empowerment) to begin their petition drive. The issue took off like wild fire, as evinced by the impressive number of signatures (only 150,000 were required for passage) and the battles being waged in the editorial pages of the area’s two major newspapers.

The petition itself will not ensure secession — only a vote from all registered voters in the city of Los Angeles could do that. But it will make possible a thorough study of secession, which will allow voters to know the full impact of such an enormous move.

“The most important thing for the people of Los Angeles to realize is that the impact on the city must be revenue neutral,” said Brain. “When I tell people on the other side of the hill about this, they typically react, ‘Well then let the Valley secede. Who cares?'”

For example, if the Valley normally contributes $30 million in taxes toward the police force, but only gets $25 million in services from the LAPD, the Valley would still have to fork over $5 million to the city every year after the break-up to maintain revenue neutrality. (“Like an alimony payment,” Brain explains.)

Then why secede? Because the money the Valley retains — like that $25 million — will be under the Valley’s control, said Brain. And if the new Valley’s city council decides it wants to allocate more for neighborhood watch programs or to put more officers on gang patrols, the decision is theirs to make.

One of the primary reasons Valley residents support secession is the desire to improve local schools. Many hold the perception that when extra money trickles down from Sacramento to L.A., it never quite reaches the Valley side of Mulholland Drive. They may have a point: of the district’s more than 800 schools, only 200 are located in the San Fernando Valley area, according to Pat Spencer, communications officer for LAUSD, despite the fact that the population is about equally split.

But Mayor Richard Riordan, who strongly opposes secession, said restructuring the LAUSD is a completely separate issue.

“Breaking up the Valley has nothing to do with breaking up the school district,” Riordan said. “Even now, 12 percent of the LAUSD is outside the city limits. And breaking up the Valley into one big school district would be stupid. If you wanted to improve matters, you should break it up into units where each superintendent would have a direct relationship with every school and not have to go through six layers of bureaucracy.”

While there is no organized opposition to compete with Valley VOTE, some major Los Angeles players, like the mayor, have expressed concern that the average citizen sees secession as a “quick fix” and does not understand how complicated it will actually be. Indeed, Riordan said, the process could take as long as a decade to implement, since its passage would undoubtedly be followed by numerous lawsuits against the Valley seceding.

“While I support the right of the people to vote their conscience, I think on the whole the loss of the Valley would be detrimental to the city of Los Angeles,” Riordan said. “It only takes a modicum of common sense to see that it cannot be a zero-sum game, because the city has a disproportionately higher number of poor who do not pay as much in taxes and who need more help.”

There are also contentions from numerous sources — including a scathing editorial in the Nov. 21 Los Angeles Times — that the petition itself was misrepresented as merely opting to study the issue of secession, rather than initiating secession itself.

“Valley VOTE is being disingenuous in the way it presented the petition,” said Matt Cahn, director of the Center for Southern California Studies at California State University Northridge. “This is a policy request; by signing the petition, voters are requesting secession and if it turns out to be fiscally viable it will go to a full vote of the entire area.”

Cahn said he believed the secession movement was as much about the perceived image of the Valley as about whether the Valley gets its fair share of city services.

“The Valley has an authentic gripe — being the stepchild municipality has been hard to swallow,” he said. “The Valley is the Rodney Dangerfield of Los Angeles, but part of the problem is that we don’t take ourselves seriously.

“Here at CSUN we’ve had to take a hard look at our constituency and realize, while we’re not UCLA, there are areas where we are actually better. It would be nice if people in the Valley could feel like that instead of comparing themselves unfavorably.”

Cahn’s department has already completed one study on the effects of secession, concentrating on race and class differences; they are currently seeking funding to perform a second study that would examine the political impact of the Valley breaking off from the city.

“The report will look at which constituencies will win and which will lose,” he said. “For example, Latinos in the Northeast Valley have a strong coalition with Latino communities on the other side of the hill, while the Valley’s Jewish community is networked into the Westside. This landscape is bound to change dramatically by cutting one-third out of the pie.”

Should Valley secession succeed, however, Jewish leaders said the break-up should have little effect on the continuity of city-funded services to the Jewish community.

“It’s still a little early on, but I would not anticipate that any new governmental body in the Valley would want to do anything to reduce services that are so highly regarded,” said Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of Jewish Community Relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Brain agreed, saying that Jewish and other social agencies could even get a boost from the new Valley city.

“What we’re seeing in L.A. city is that the economy of scale is being overcome by the efficiency — or rather inefficiency — of size,” Brain said. “There are 87 cities in the surrounding area. All have lower business taxes. We think we can provide the same kinds of better quality services and lower taxes if the Valley becomes independent.”