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After more than five years of intensive legislative and legal maneuvering, a determined team of lawyers and business leaders has won the right to present Los Angeles voters with a proposal to split the San Fernando Valley off from the rest of the city. From now until the Nov. 5 election, the push for valley secession will devolve into an all-out political fight. But judging from the noise emanating from both camps, a legal battle may well resume Nov. 6, whether the measure wins or loses at the ballot box. According to the latest opinion poll, voters overwhelmingly oppose a Hollywood secession measure of more recent vintage, which will also be on the Nov. 5 ballot. But in the Los Angeles Times survey released in early July, the long-sought valley secession proposal was just 9 percentage points short of the citywide majority that it needs, and secession proponents insist the trend is running in their favor. Win or lose, the secession campaign has already broken new legal ground. The last contested municipal split in California occurred in the 1890s when Coronado broke away from San Diego. But a secession of the magnitude of the measure now before Los Angeles voters is unprecedented. If the proposal passes, the new valley city would become the sixth largest in the nation, with a population of 1.3 million. The remainder of Los Angeles would drop only one spot in the rankings to No. 3. “I’m not aware of any similar effort that has ever been attempted anywhere in the country,” said Barry Fadem, a Contra Costa County, Calif.-based election law expert retained by the valley secessionists. It’s safe to assume that any breakup of such a massive entity won’t proceed without a legal fight. One suit that promises to live past Election Day has already been launched by Robert Hunt, general counsel for the Service Employees International Union local that represents many Los Angeles city workers. Ostensibly acting as a private citizen, not on the union’s behalf, Hunt’s suit, filed in June, attacks the adequacy of the environmental impact statement prepared for the county’s Local Area Formation Commission, the state-mandated agency that crafted the secession plan. “We would prefer to get a hearing [on a motion for an injunction] before the election,” said Hunt’s attorney, June Ailin of the Los Angeles firm Kane, Ballmer & Berkman. “But if not, I suppose the results could be overturned after the election.” Parties more directly involved in the electoral contest are coy about their post-election intentions. Acknowledging that a lawsuit against secession now would be “fodder for the people who want to secede,” City Council President Alex Padilla has told reporters that he is “torn” about launching litigation. But he has hinted that there may be no other way to address “a lot of flaws” in the breakup plan. On the other side, the San Fernando Valley Independence Committee and the valley’s United Chambers of Commerce retained John Ramirez, of Rutan & Tucker, who sent a letter Aug. 3 to Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn that openly discusses the possibility of future legal action if the secession measure goes down to defeat. Debra Sakacs, CEO of the chamber, said the letter merely raises a concern and insisted “there never will be a lawsuit.” But the 11-page “cease-and-desist demand” document itself accuses Hahn of “poisoning” the electoral process with anti-secession “propaganda” drawn up and disseminated illegally by city employees at taxpayer expense. “By this letter we hope to provide your office with an opportunity to avoid litigation … that would surely ensue should your office fail to comply,” Ramirez warned. The pro-secession movement has plenty of other legal firepower waiting for it in the wings. Volunteer lawyers have been prominent from the start in the drive to liberate the sprawling San Fernando Valley from the rest of Los Angeles, which many valley denizens accuse of taking more in taxes than it returns in city services and basic respect. Richard Close, chairman of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, the main pro-secession campaign group, was one of the first lawyers to join the movement. A veteran of the Proposition 13 property tax-cutting crusade in the 1970s, he was president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, a position he still holds, when he first got involved in the valley independence drive more than five years ago. He recruited John Isen, another lawyer active in the homeowners association, who is now head of Valley VOTE’s legal committee. Another key lawyer, William Powers Jr., is current chairman of the board of the valley’s United Chambers of Commerce and also a leader in San Fernando Valley Independence Committee. The volunteer lawyers in the secession movement decided early on that they would need some big guns to lead the fight. So they retained Clark Alsop, a partner at Riverside-based Best Best & Krieger, regarded as the “dean of California LAFCO law,” to oversee proceedings before the Local Agency Formation Commission. Once the measure seemed assured of getting onto a ballot, they brought in Fadem, one of the leading experts on California election law. In the years of legal maneuvering leading up to this fall’s vote, lawyers in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office have lined up against advocates of secession on most issues. But they may have to sit out any post-election litigation. That’s because under the terms of the breakup drawn up by LAFCO, Los Angeles will continue to provide most services to the new valley city, including police, fire, water and legal services until July 1, 2004. Unless the new city gives six months notice that it intends to take over provision of any such service before the end of the transition period, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office will be the legal representative not only for what would remain of Los Angeles but also for the valley city for as long as 20 months after Election Day. “It would be interesting to see which employer the city attorney chooses, if he could choose any,” said Powers. But most likely, he added, “I think there would have to be a recusal. If that happened, the new city would have pretty darned good claim to get reimbursed for the costs of defense, I guess out of the city attorney’s budget.” That would represent sweet vindication for proponents of valley independence who have long accused the Los Angeles city attorney’s office of serving as a tool of the mayor and City Council members who oppose secession. “I believe the legal analysis by the city is not being driven by lawyers but by politicians who are afraid of reduced empires and reduced power,” Close said. Powers added, “We believe that the city attorney’s clients include us,” referring to the citizens who favor secession. The pro-secession lawyers acknowledge that elected officials can express personal opinions about issues facing the city. “But they can’t use their public office to play a role in a campaign,” said Fadem. “Putting out materials that urge people to vote yea or nay on a ballot proposition is absolutely improper.” Pro-secession lawyers aim most of their accusations of misconduct of that sort at the former city attorney, James Hahn, who was elevated to mayor in the June 2001 city election. Hahn is the chief target of the Aug. 3 “cease-and-desist demand,” which accuses him of using City Hall staff and facilities in the anti-secession campaign. The current city attorney, Rockard “Rocky” Delgadillo, who was elected to office in the June 2001 vote, is held in somewhat higher regard by the secessionists. “Although Rocky has gone out and spoken about his personal view [that the city should not split up], he has not been particularly strident,” said Powers. “I could not say that about the city attorney’s office under Hahn.” The secessionists don’t let Delgadillo entirely off the hook. The positions that his office has taken in hearings before LAFCO have demonstrated that he, too, has been a willing tool of anti-secession politicians, valley independence advocates assert. “There have been a couple of opinions that were almost silly,” said Powers. For example, an opinion presented last fall by the city attorney’s office to LAFCO asserting that a new valley city could not take over fire stations, parks and other municipal facilities in its territories without paying “just compensation” to Los Angeles “was just ridiculous,” Powers said. LAFCO ultimately adopted a contrary view offered by the state legislative counsel’s office, which contended that public facilities are owned by the people and held in public trust by whatever duly constituted municipal entity governs a particular region. Fred Merkin, the assistant city attorney who has taken the lead on secession issues, defended his office’s legal work. The city attorney’s office has offered legal advice consistent with policies set by the mayor and City Council, he said. And those officials have indeed raised objections about many specific secession provisions. But Merkin added that those objections have been aimed at “the concrete proposals that were before LAFCO as contrasted with secession in the abstract.” The result, he said, is a secession plan that will better serve the interests of all of the citizens of Los Angeles. “We have not attempted to block a vote on secession. And in fact, the measure is now on the ballot,” Merkin said. “The role we’ve played is very much like a referee. We’re protecting the interests of the city and of the voters.” Julie Wong, a spokeswoman for Mayor Hahn, also asserted that the secessionists’ allegations of obstructionism and electoral misconduct are “totally false.” From the moment the secession measure made it onto the ballot, all campaigning against the proposal has been conducted by independent organizations operating outside of City Hall, she said. And despite Hahn’s personal opposition to a breakup of Los Angeles, “The mayor has said again and again that he thinks people should have the right to vote on the issue. He has also said that he thinks that what is put on the ballot should not harm either the people who will live in the new valley city or Hollywood or the people who would be left in Los Angeles.” All of his activities on the issue have been aimed at “making sure the proposal that’s put forward does the best that we can toward that end.” Whether the secession plan that will go to the voters in November is good enough to forestall future lawsuits should the breakup win approval remains to be seen. “There has been no utterance by this office that I’m aware of with regard to any lawsuits,” said Merkin. But he added that it won’t be the city attorney’s call. “The question of litigation is a policy issue that only our elected officials can address,” Merkin said. David Gershwin, a spokesman for City Council President Padilla, declined to elaborate on the councilman’s suggestion that he might support a suit over flaws in the secession plan. But he said, “At the end of the day, what we are hoping is that the voters on Nov. 5 vote overwhelming to keep the city together. Then we wouldn’t have anything to worry about.” That is unless secession proponents launch legal action of their own demanding a new vote. Mark Thompson is based in Los Angeles and has written for The Recorder and other publications.

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