Secession Won’t Work

Last month, the ground lurched beneath the crowd trying to split the San Fernando Valley from the rest of Los Angeles. The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) determining whether and how breakup proposals reach the ballot, turned the rallying cry of Valley secessionists on its head. Brushing aside any meaningful definition of “self-determination,” LAFCO recommends that a new Valley city initially contract for basic services like police and fire from, well, the existing City of Los Angeles.

And those vexing questions of the division of assets between L.A. and Valley city? Just too darned complicated to figure out till after the breakup. There may be no better antidote for secession fever than a dose of the facts. While Valley residents — indeed, all L.A. city residents — have legitimate gripes, from sidewalk repair to the speed of emergency medical services, secession doesn’t really respond to them.

For example, relegating the new Valley city to the role of consumer of services means losing, not gaining control. Take the police department: In many Valley neighborhoods the issue of community-based policing was on the front burner after L.A. Police Chief Bernard Parks eliminated key community contacts called Senior Lead Officers. A grass-roots campaign persuaded elected and appointed representatives to overturn Parks’ decision. Mere consumers, without elected representation on LAPD issues, would never have had that impact.

Secessionists invoke Revolutionary War rhetoric, but secession would, in fact, lead directly to taxation without representation: Under LAFCO’s formulation, policy-making power over the things that taxes fund would rest downtown.

The secessionists’ claim that they would turn to the marketplace for alternatives if L.A. officials were unresponsive is disingenuous. No jurisdiction has ever successfully geared up to compete for 1.4 million new customers seeking water, sewage treatment or law enforcement services.

Breakup advocates may be struggling to regroup, but this should hardly lead to rejoicing at City Hall. Citywide, the challenge to improve the quality of life is made more daunting by the revelation that tax receipts are far below revenue forecasts. This much, though, is clear: Every minute spent on secession would be better devoted to actually tackling Los Angeles’ problems.

Mike Feuer is the Los Angeles city councilman for the 5th district.

This commentary first aired on KPCC FM 89.3 on Oct. 12, 2001.