May 7, 2004 - From the June, 2002 issue

L.A.'s Quandry: Break Up Or Boroughs?

Commenting on the boroughs proposal put forward by Assembly Speaker Emeritus Robert Hertzberg, Washington Post Writer's Group columnist Neil Pierce recently contributed the following article. MIR is pleased to reprint it for our readers.

The breakup of the great world city of Los Angeles could happen this fall. Secession proponents have forced a measure onto the November ballot splitting off the San Fernando Valley, home to 1.35 million people, or almost 40 percent of L.A.'s 3.5 million total.

A parallel measure would cut off Hollywood. Next up, say some, may be the Wilmington/San Pedro harbor area, or the city's affluent west side.

Set us free, cry the secessionists, from a floundering, inefficient central Los Angeles government that's always treated us like stepchildren anyway. Let us form our own cities, run all our own affairs.

No way, declare L.A. defenders, including present and former mayors. Secession, they argue, solves no problems. Or as Kevin Starr, the California state librarian and a professor at the University of Southern California pleads, don't let Los Angeles, one of the most creative, dynamic metropolises on earth, become the first great city in world history to voluntarily deconstruct itself.

A bitter, acrimonious struggle leading up to this fall's secession vote seemed inevitable. Then in June, a carefully designed alternative was presented by Robert Hertzberg, immediate past Speaker of the California Assembly and respected legislator from the San Fernando Valley's Sherman Oaks area.

Hertzberg's idea is to keep a unified city of Los Angeles, but divide it into nine boroughs-Center City, Westside, South Harbor, Northeast-, West- and Mid-San Fernando Valley, for example. Each borough, from districts of roughly 82,500 people, would elect a five-member council with full control over local budgets and services ranging from community development and housing to parks, libraries and planning.

Each council would elect a borough president (for a two-year term) from its own membership. The borough presidents would constitute a citywide board of presidents, replacing the existing Los Angeles City Council. The L.A. mayor would still have the expanded powers granted him (belatedly) in a 1999 city charter revision. Citywide responsibility would continue in such areas as taxation, police, airports, harbors and information technology.

The Los Angeles Times sprang within days to endorse boroughs as a way to "both keep Los Angeles united and fix the problems that have driven so many to consider smashing it apart."

Several obstacles now confront the borough plan. First, sheer politics: the City Council would have to qualify it for the ballot-no time for an initiative campaign so late, and why vote one's self out of office? Proponents reply: lots of council members face early term-limit cutoffs, and several could aim for borough presidencies.

Second, the New York parallel. Critics are sure to note that centralized power has wiped out most of the borough autonomy enacted 104 years ago. Backers' reply: New York's preponderance of money and power in a single borough, Manhattan, isn't replicated in Los Angeles.


Finally, many secession backers call boroughs a diversion that is getting raised just as their campaign crests. In a way, they're right. A borough plan finally gives Angelenos something to vote for.

And that's just the point, says David Abel, civic leader and editor-publisher of the L.A.-based Planning Report. There was an almost Founding Fathers-like touch, he suggests, in the way Hertzberg thought through the delicate balances-neighborhood-borough-citywide-to produce a full-blown borough plan for Los Angeles' 21st-century needs.

Hertzberg's charter preamble, for example, focuses on restoring the average citizen's role in the democratic process through smaller districts likely to attract citizen-politicians and reduce the impact of campaign money. District lines are to be drawn to "keep neighborhoods and communities intact" and build on existing neighborhood councils. Local "city halls" are expected to improve citizens' access to government.

Yet Hertzberg's charter language also focuses on "creative tension" necessary for government to work well both locally and regionally, including the borough presidents fighting for diverse interests, yet obliged to work collectively and find tradeoffs, and "the role of a strong mayor to make equitable citywide decisions."

In a time of cynical, trick-laden politics, how refreshing!

And timely, too. L.A.'s big, centralized, professionally run government flourished in the mid-20th century along with big mega-corporations like General Motors, notes Starr of USC. Los Angeles had white, middle-class, homogeneous "Wonder Bread" leadership that didn't doubt itself-not until the 1965 Watts wake-up call, anyway.

Today, by contrast, big corporations and big government engender instant suspicions. Each Angeleno today, suggests Starr, "assembles for himself or herself a civic identity out of unique factors of race, class, ethnicity, religion, language-and neighborhood." Wonder Bread's out; finely grained breads and exquisite arrays of coffees are in. A delicate federalist cake-and for mega-cities, that's borough government-matches the new need very closely.

Technology says the same: big, centralized, you-have-to-come-to-us bureaucracies are anachronisms. With computerized databanks and shared citywide data, little city halls can be competent-and responsive.

Will Los Agneles listen to vision, think federation? Or will it focus on the fears and resentments behind secession? On the answer, one suspects, rides its future.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.