September 1, 2001 - From the September, 2001 issue

New LAFCO Member's Challenge: To Secede Or Not To Secede

Immediately following the events of Sepember 11, the Director of FEMA postulated that NYC and LA are the only places that have the governance structure necessary to react to such a horrendous act. But will that answer ring true after November 2002? Will Secession rip apart a city that is finally beginning to be strong, flexible, and responsive? Cindy Miscikowski, LA City Councilwoman and recent LAFCO appointee, sat down with TPR exactly one week after the attacks on NYC and DC and candidly addressed the evolving civic culture of LA, why the Secession debate has been a positive experience for LA, and why NYC now offers a model for Angelenos everywhere.


Cindy Miscikowski

Cindy, after the events of Sept. 11, how we govern ourselves may be even more relevant and important than it was during Charter Reform. Let's focus on the archtitecture of our governing institutions. Give us a status report on the evolving efforts of the secession movement in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and the Harbor. Where do these break-off movements stand in terms of resolution?

In general, LAFCO's overarching role is to determine the viability of new cities in any location, but for our purposes the debate within L.A. County is primarily about the Valley.

We are currently in the midst of a comprehensive fiscal analysis in which both LAFCO and the two groups involved, Valley VOTE and the City of L.A., have issued mutual reports and made a number of comments regarding the viability of the new city, the provision of city services, the division of assets, etc.

In an attempt to flesh out those items and decide on how to proceed LAFCO will be holding hearings during the month of October both in areas determined to secede and throughout the City in an attempt to get reaction from people about the process and the possible benefits and consequences if the Valley were to secede.

You're a new appointed LAFCO member from the City of L.A.; I gather you've just attended your first meeting. Give us a status report on LAFCO's decision-making process and where this matter sits?

Because of the events of Sept. 11, last week's meeting was very short. However, we did discuss the future public hearing agenda. In that conversation I noted that although there were both Saturday and evening meetings scheduled for the Harbor and the Valley, the only meeting set for an area outside of those two areas was in Downtown on a Wednesday morning-that's not conducive to allowing for a meeting to obtain the depth and breadth of public testimony and interest necessary for an act of this magnitude.

So my first action as a member of LAFCO was to ask the Board to change that public hearing schedule and schedule a evening meeting during the week and a Saturday meeting so that more people can attend and receive all of the information necessary to make an informed decision on this item.

What is the timeline? When do the key decisions happen between now and November 2002? What milestone should our readers be aware of?

There are a number of key actions that LAFCO must take including: a comprehensive fiscal analysis, an environmental impact report, and a redistricting proposal. LAFCO has mandated that those items must be concluded before the issue goes on the ballot because the vote will no longer be strictly about whether the Valley will secede, but who will be its elected governance if the measure passes. If we stray from that timeline, state law stipulates that the other issues cannot be voted on for another 2 years.

Let's take a half-step back. You represent a portion of both the Valley and the Westside on the L.A. City Council. What, in your opinion, is primarily driving the a movement to break up the City of Los Angeles?

The driving force behind secession is the perception that City services are not equal and that government accessibility is difficult. The issue really dove-tails from the discussions that emanated from the Charter reform movement. The issues of Neighborhood Councils, Area Planning Commissions, etc. that came out of Charter reform are rooted in the same issues that the secession movement is meant to address-delivery of services and accessibility at the local level. Those issues are paramount.

Charter reform was supposed to relieve the pressure for the breakup of the City. Did the Charter reform effort adopted now by the voters relieve that pressure?

It may, although it's probably too soon to tell. The most significant parts of the new Charter are the local empowerment sections which will not be fully realized until at least October and probably much longer.

But I think what that dialogue proved is that there is a lot of vitality in every part of the City and people are eager and willing to give these Neighborhood Councils a chance. Perhaps, these Councils will cause the secession movement to diminish a little, at least in the minds of the public, but as per LAFCO's decision to get on the ballot by Nov. 2002 a number of steps will have to be taken over the next year to leave secession as an option.

And what's at stake in this debate/ decision-making process?

Simply put, the economic viability of city governance as we know it is at stake. Our City's tax base is finite. Can that tax base allow us to continue to deliver services like fire, police, garbage collection, water and power under a different framework? Can that be divided in multiple ways and still provide adequate administrative oversight and the same level of service? That's really what's at stake.

If we rush through this economic analysis and are wrong, the remaining City of L.A. and the new Valley city may have problems ahead. That's why the fine details in these economic studies are so important.

Take for example Valley VOTE's application. The current proposal creates a very strong dependence on the remnants of the City of L.A. In that application it states that the new Valley city will be contracting with the City of L.A. to provide police, fire, 911 dispatch and any number of health and safety services, let alone water and power issues. So the question is: Who determines that contract's term? Who determines that contract's amount? And who determines what happens if the new San Fernando Valley city doesn't have the financial wherewithal to pay for those services? Questions like that are at the root of this process. They must be fully analyzed, totally understood and rectified with at least a modicum of assurance.

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The reason those issues have become so important is that one of the more recent cities to secede was one in Sacramento County. During its LAFCO proceedings its secession application was written with the understanding that it would pay the County for certain services. However, when that new City Council was elected, the first thing they said was, "Whoever negotiated that contract wasn't thinking for us. And we're going to have the newly elected leaders of this city renegotiate." So the new city began, first off, in litigation.

The bottom line of that cautionary tale is that if we do not flesh out all the possible ramifications that secession will have, either the City of L.A., the new Valley city or perhaps even both might end up compounding the problems that this process hopes to rectify.

There used to be a provision in our City Charter for a Borough system like that of New York, London or Chicago. That was eliminated years ago. How did we limit ourselves to an all or nothing break-up or stay together choice? And are there still alternative governance options available for voters and LAFCO to consider?

There are alternatives. There are arguably an infinite number of alternatives. What we are facing today is a consequence of the Valley VOTE application. In that regard they directed what this has become.

There is a possibility that the secession debate could have followed a similar path to that of the Charter reform Commissions. By November 2002 it is possible that the City could sponsor an alternative governance proposal in addition to a LAFCO proposal. Perhaps in that situation the Borough system could again resurface as a viable option for L.A., if there is public sentiment for that or any other alternative.

If the City of Los Angeles is faced with the challenge of an application for secession, I can only assume that we will devise alternative ballot measures. But, that is a long way off. And at this point we must simply wait and see how this situation unfolds.

With that in mind, what toll, if any, is this debate taking on the daily operation of the City of L.A.? Is it positive, negative, neutral? Is there, for example, any impact on the City capacity to presently deliver services?

There's probably some negativity just because the process and the outcome are unknown. But overall I have to believe that this process is generally healthy. It's causing the governance structure to really examine how we provide services to our constituents. And our public administrators know that if the neighborhoods don't feel empowered and they don't see increased quality in city services that they will complain not with a phone call, but with a vote to secede.

We at City Hall realize that this is a very crucial time in governance. And I think that between now and November 2002 that it is at least the strategy of the City Council to implement the changes made to the Charter. Then if secession was to come to a vote, the changes to L.A. governance-better services, neighborhood councils, better responsiveness, etc.-would lead to secession being defeated.

That's one strategy in terms of elevating the levels of service that have been historically present in the City. But I think that what we've seen in the last election shows that these issues are at the very core of our constituents. Almost to a person, each new Councilmember campaigned very strongly on the issue of neighborhood councils, providing better services and less on the grander scheme of things in governance. So I think that this evolution is not merely in response to the secession proposal, as some have postulated, but more that governance is doing its job and really evolving to meet the desires of the public.

One can't engage in this interview without noting the events of Sept. 11. Given our needed focus on security at, for example, our airports, in highrises and notable public buildings, is size of city of new relevance? Will, like New York City, new threats provide the impetus for us to stay together and apportion such risks and liabilities on a larger population/economy? Or does it foreshadow a devolution to smaller government units?

If we look toward New York, it seems that government agencies that have an abundance of resources have been able to handle, as best as can be expected, the events predicated by last week's tragedy.

In our hour of need, cities across the nation came together both individually as municipalities, bracing for possible attacks, and collectively as a country, ready to lend a helping hand. The fact that the entirety of L.A. was able to mobilize at a single emergency operations center and monitor LAX, the Port, and our water reservoir and supply systems seems to solidify the need for centralization.

Lastly, some have said that the horrific events of Sept. 11 have had a powerful impact on the psyche of the country and that in fact there is renewed civic spirit and a coming together of our citizens, not just around defending our country, but around the heroism displayed by NY's finest. Before Sept. 11th, for example, some who thought David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise best described our American culture now think its irrelevant. Do you sense a political change in our civic culture?

I believe as you've articulated that there is a sense of oneness that we had lost. In the past few decades we had split ourselves, whether it be in terms of class, religion, culture or simply the duties of our daily lives. We were focused on our differences more than on our similarities. Because of Sept. 11, we now all stand as one.

One of the best comments I heard about the events of last week was a German fellow who was reminded of his community coming together when John F. Kennedy went to Berlin and said "I'm a Berliner." Today we are all New Yorkers.

Angelenos used to bash New York, it was fun. Today everyone in Los Angeles and around the world is saying that we want to be like New York. I think we will see the type of unity that we've witnessed on the streets of New York and around the World Trade Center. And hopefully the longer term impact will translate into real action at the local, regional and state levels and perhaps rekindle the merit of citizen involvement.

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