May 2, 2000 - From the May, 2000 issue

Fred Gaines Offers a San Fernando Valley Perspective On Cityhood & Planning

Many have said that Valley VOTE's recently released "Vision Statement" is short on specifics, and not much longer on vision. But it's an important first step in what will be a long, complicated and politically heated process. As LAFCO continues to grapple with such a large task, TPR was pleased to speak with Valley Industry and Commerce Association Boardmember Fred Gaines about the document, VICA's concerns, and why secession remains attractive to so many.


Fred Gaines

Fred, as someone who's very active in the San Fernando Valley and in VICA, what's your view of Valley VOTE's just-released "Vision Statement"?

While there will certainly be criticism, in general, Valley VOTE has done a good job of putting together a vision for a new Valley City government.

The primary debate will be over the concept of a part-time council. Even with the representation down to 100,000 residents per council person-which is what the Vision Statement suggests-people will still question the responsiveness they'll get from a part-time councilperson.

It certainly can be done-all of the smaller, local jurisdictions around the City of L.A. have part-time council people. The big difference is that departments and city staff in those cities are much more responsive to constituent complaints and concerns. In L.A., we're all used to dealing with the Council Office because we can never find the right person to fix our street in the Public Works Department. But in the City of Calabasas, if you call the Director of Public Works to fix a problem on your street and he sends someone out the next day, you don't care whether you talked to the Councilperson or not.

What are VICA's stakeholder interests in the debate about a new city or cities in the San Fernando Valley?

One, VICA wants to make sure that whatever happens, business and economic development are appropriately represented and addressed. That's their concern with implementation of the new City Charter-the neighborhood councils and area planning commissions-and that's their concern with a potential new Valley City. VICA doesn't want a city where homeowners associations and NIMBYism run wild, but a city in which resident issues and business concerns are balanced.

VICA also sees tremendous opportunity for the Valley to get its fair share of infrastructure funding and, in terms of economic development, to get tax dollars generated in the Valley spent in the Valley. In the last decade, not only has the Valley become highly urbanized, but a lot of the infrastructure has grown old and is in serious need of repair.

VICA's other main concern is education. As part of LAUSD, the level of public education in the Valley has sunk with the rest of the City. Employers in the Valley-the entertainment industry, the healthcare industry, the blooming high tech businesses-are very concerned about the quality of the future workforce. The Valley is surrounded by smaller districts that have much higher achievement levels-Las Virgenes School District, Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, etc. And we need to think about how to split up or restructure L.A. Unified so that our schools get back on track.

You obviously don't buy the argument that this is a problem, in part, of the impact of Prop. 13 on the homerule powers of local government? Is size the variable that most impacts a jurisdiction's ability to deliver the quantity and quality of public services that citizens demand?

I hate to say it's totally the issue of size, because I can certainly envision a very large organization that runs well.

But that's not what we have in either the City or the School District. And in both cases, the Valley has rightfully felt that 1) they're not getting a fair share of attention, money or services; and 2) one answer to that problem is to have more local control.

And you believe that within the constitutional framework of the State of California today, more local control can be achieved by break-up than constitutional reform? This despite the fact that local property taxes are raised locally but are apportioned, in great measure, by the State Legislature and the Governor-rather than the Mayor, council people or school board members?

That certainly makes it more difficult, but local government still has a lot of control over obtaining and expending those funds.

It's not that smaller is always better. In fact, some issues are better addressed by regional governance. For example, the Air Quality District has done a good job of implementing air quality management techniques throughout the entire region.

But for most local issues, smaller is better.

Fred, if small is better, how small is small? And how many cities ought to be created to achieve the Calabasas, San Fernando or Burbank models that many hold out as workable examples of local government?

My opinion is that the proposed Valley City is still pretty large. Many of the same problems that inspired secession will continue to occur with 1.5 million people in the new Valley City. It's certainly better, but it's not ideal.

In the suburban models of Chicago and New York, where you have smaller townships and cities on the suburban fringe-Long Island and Westchester in New York, and the north and west sides of Chicago-the neighborhoods and school systems have done very well. Calabasas, Aguora, Santa Clarita-even Burbank and Glendale-are other good examples of appropriately-sized cities/school districts.

Having said that, this proposed Valley City may be a good compromise. There's always the criticism that when you get too small, you create rich cities and poor ones-simply shifting economic development problems instead of alleviating them. While not ideal, the new Valley government will be smaller-and hopefully more responsive. And the San Fernando Valley certainly has the full spectrum of economic and labor classes.

Could you address some of the issues that are going to arise over the course of the Valley's secession study? One is how to divide the City of L.A.'s assets-like the Airport, the Harbor and other public works investments. What are your thoughts about how such assests will be divided if the Valley secedes from the City?

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People are exploiting the obvious complexity of these issues to create stumbling blocks. But the bottom line is that mergers and divorces more complicated than this have taken place.

Most of it will go logically along the borderlines. The City of L.A. will continue to manage and own the public facilities it makes the most sense for them to operate, and likewise for the new City. I don't think it's that complicated-when you flush your toilet, the water will go to the same place it goes now. It's just a matter of figuring out how the respective cities will receive credit for past investments and be charged for services in the future, which are certainly not drop-dead issues.

A good team of lawyers will negotiate a settlement, and then we'll move forward.

Mayor Riordan talked to the business and civic leadership of the Valley and urged them not to go forward with secession. For much of his administration, he pushed the notion that Charter reform would result in a withering away of support for secession. Breaking up land-use planning into the area planning commissions was one of the central themes of the Charter reform recommendations. But for you and many others in the Valley, such reforms are insufficent to dissuade you from the secession effort. Is that right?

That's correct. Though it's definitely a step in the right direction, everyone agrees that the Charter effort didn't go far enough in dispersing power and decision-making in the City.

The neighborhood councils ended up being advisory, which means their impact will vary widely. Some of the councils will be very prominent in the provision of services in their neighborhoods. But in other areas, the councils will make no difference at all, if they even last more than a few meetings.

The area planning commissions will provide some sense that decision-makers are closer to the neighborhoods, but I'm not certain they'll satisfy people's concerns either.

Unfortunately, concurrent with these reform efforts, the City seems to go through one major blunder after another. Whether it's Rampart or Belmont, people are saying, ‘We need to break up this bureaucracy because it just doesn't work.' Even with strong support for leaders like Mayor Riordan and Chief Parks, people just don't have a good sense that the City is working.

Today's common wisdom suggests we're supposed to think globally and act locally. But as you know, in politics that's not always true. Experience would suggest that in government, it's easier to act locally and avoid considering the impacts outside one's jurisdiction, i.e. the impact on the region or state's economy, houisng supply, public works, etc. How do we-while breaking up government into units that neighborhoods and citizens can more easily engage with-intelligently steward our region's investments and infrastucture?

You have to attach responsibility to power. The program that VICA initially put forward during the Charter Reform debate gave authority to 15 local councils throughout the City and assigned them responsibility to implement citywide policies as set forth in the General Plan. The key is to give people local control over local matters, but also hold them responsible for broader, regional policies.

You are suggesting that smaller communities-such as Calabasas, where you live-will willingly take on their fair share of affordable housing responsibilities, waste disposal, transportation infrastructure, etc. under a restructured system?

Absolutely. In fact, many of the smaller jurisdictions do a much better job of those things than the City of Los Angeles.

However, the State of California (or whatever regional government we end up with) also has to make sure that cities are implementing their general plans. Calabasas, for example, is not going to build new freeway lanes, but they can provide effective shuttle and commuter services for their City. And because it's small enough and knows the needs of its neighborhoods down to a street-by-street, house-by-house basis, Calabasas has the potential to create services people might actually use. The City of L.A., on the other hand, has not been very successful in determining these local needs. It's difficult for a local government Downtown to know what a particular neighborhood in Northridge is concerned about.

There will always be regional responsibilities. But the most important thing is the enforcement of the general plans already in place. And so far, the State has not been very good at enforcing those elements.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer recently told me that he plans to enforce the housing requirements that cities have in their general plans. But, in the same sitting, he also said he's decided to be the "environmental activist AG" and will fight against the largest housing projects going forward in the region, such as Newhall Ranch and Ahmanson Ranch. You can't have it both ways. The L.A. City Council can't call for more new rental housing one day, then declare old apartment buildings to be historic in order to defeat a new development the next day.

Lastly, as a good friend and confidant of the new Speaker of the California Assembly, what can we expect in aid and comfort from the Legislature for the agendas addressed in this interview?

Over the course of the next couple years, we're going to see significant legislation regarding how the State will restructure local government agencies such as LAFCO.

Similarly, I believe we'll see logical restructuring of how tax dollars come into the State and how they get back to local government.

Bob Hertzberg is just the guy to make these complicated restruct-urings happen. He's a "structure-of-government" student and professor, and I think he'll continue to focus on these issues.

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