Jewish Journal

Who’s Who in the Valley Secession Fight

by Wendy J. Madnick

Posted on Mar. 14, 2002 at 7:00 pm

This is the first in a multipart series looking at the Jewish community and Valley secession. Let us know what you think about secession by taking part in our secession forum at www.jewishjournal.com/forum.

The acronyms and titles relating to the Valley secession movement have been thrown around for months, if not years: LAFCO, Valley VOTE, One Los Angeles. But who are the names and faces behind these organizations?

Rumblings about the Valley needing to break off and care for itself have been heard around the Southland since the early 1970s. It took until 1998, however, for a petition drive to finally get secession examined as a serious possibility.

This latest push for an independent San Fernando Valley has been driven primarily by two men: Jeff Brain and Richard Close, the founders of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment (Valley VOTE).

Close, an attorney and one of the proponents of Prop. 13, has served as president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association for more than two decades and has made many powerful connections to help support the organization.

But it is Brain who, more than anyone, has come to embody the fight for secession. In the four years since The Journal first visited him, the already-lean activist has grown thinner and grayer, his boyish enthusiasm for the cause replaced by a steady, almost grim determination to see the issue through to the end.

He is clearly tired of being called naive, of being told that secession is just a dream and ultimately unworkable, pointing to the March 2001 report released by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) that states otherwise.

If the people of Los Angeles "can get past the sound bites and get the facts, the residents will realize this is a windfall for them," Brain said. "By having a smaller Los Angeles, the city will reap the same benefits as the Valley. LAFCO has shown the city won't lose a dime, and even South Central will benefit by having a greater voice in a smaller city."

Brain, who has bachelor of science degrees in both accounting and finance, can pull numbers off the top of his head to support almost every argument in favor of secession. He accuses the anti-secession movement of using scare tactics, such as claims about less police and higher water bills, to turn Valley residents against breaking away.

"The truth is our budget shows more money devoted to police and fire, not less," Brain said. "And we just had a decision by LAFCO that, as part of the terms and conditions for the breakup, water and power will be provided at the same rate."

The argument that the opposition is going to make is that "the Valley won't have the same clout, that we won't be able to get state and federal grants [for city programs]," he said. "But we will be the sixth largest city in the nation. If Memphis and Miami can get grants, so can we. The problem now is that Los Angeles gets grants, but they don't flow through to programs in the Valley."

For Brain and the others at Valley VOTE, the five or six years of effort that has gone into putting secession on the political map may finally pay off, but at what price? This is the question anti-secessionists clamor to get answered.

While Mayor James Hahn is probably the best-known public figure fighting against secession, the spokesman for the organized opposition is usually Larry Levine. A political consultant who ran the campaigns of Georgia Mercer (currently serving on the Los Angeles Community College Board) and most recently for his son Lloyd, who last week won the Democratic spot for the 40th District Assembly seat race, Levine is one of the founders of One Los Angeles, which is battling the Valley VOTE drive (Mercer and political consultant Samantha Stevens are co-founders).

"Breaking up the city will not solve any of the problems the secessionists purport it will solve," said Levine, a San Fernando Valley resident since 1949. "Secession comes with a huge price tag of unanticipated risks, risks we don't see as worth taking."

Levine is also skeptical of polls showing widespread support for secession. The most recent, a KABC-TV poll in February by News/Survey USA, showed that 59 percent of respondents (Valley residents only) supported becoming a new city, while 34 percent opposed the idea. Levine disagrees.

"I like to talk about my deli and coffee shop poll," he said. "Go to 10 different delis -- Nate's, Art's, Fromin's -- on 10 different days and ask the people if anyone there is talking about secession. The answer will be 'no.'

"I don't think people in the Valley are really that interested in secession. I think there's just a small group of people who've been beating their drums for 30 years and are finally getting attention."

Among Jewish politicians, the secession issue presents an interesting challenge: not only whether to support it but also whether to share their views and risk alienating a portion of their constituency. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky serves on the LAFCO board and has let it be known he is determined to remain neutral. Outgoing Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg drafted the legislation making a study of secession possible but has said he opposes a break-up, preferring to look for alternatives such as the creation of a borough system similar to that of New York. Still, his name has been floated as a possible candidate for mayor of the new city should the Valley secede.

One staunch supporter of secession is Richard Katz, a former state assemblyman who currently serves on the state's Water Resources Control Board. Some have speculated that his involvement in Valley VOTE stems from a desire to run for office in a new Valley city, but Katz said that was "not happening."

Katz made an unsuccessful run for Los Angeles mayor in 1993 and also lost a state Senate race against Richard Alarcon in 1998. For now, Katz said, he is content with serving on the Water Board and running his private consulting firm.

"I think secession presents an opportunity to have a more representative government, a greater quality of life and a government that is more responsive and more efficient," Katz explained. "When I initially got involved with Valley VOTE, they were asking a lot of the same questions I'd always wanted answers to: how much money was being spent in Los Angeles? Why wasn't there an asset list for the city? How come the Valley got shortchanged on services? It always surprised me how 10 years after the bond measure passed for more police stations, they finally broke ground for a station in the Northeast Valley."

Katz's counterpart on the anti-secession side is former Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Feuer. Currently an attorney in private practice, Feuer has written and spoken vociferously on the issue but is not associated with One Los Angeles. He said he is passionate about keeping the city intact.

"We need to draw on each other as a source of strength instead of dissipating our energy," said Feuer. "The whole issue of secession is a distraction from efforts to solve our most serious problems."

Feuer said not only does he oppose the time and money the city is being forced to expend meeting LAFCO demands for information, but he also fails to understand why secessionists refuse to admit that the city is capable of fixing its problems in the Valley. He said that neighborhood councils, a result of Charter reform in the 1990s, have only just begun to make changes and should be given a chance.

"If you look at city government in just the last few years, we have already made tremendous changes with tree trimming, sidewalk repair and parks and recreation programs. If you go up and down the list of things the city government provides, they have improved substantially. We need to continue that momentum," he said.

With so many strong personalities involved, the battle over secession is bound to get even more attention and even more complicated as the time for a possible vote approaches. It will be up to voters -- and the press -- to draw the distinctions between fact and exaggeration, as well as what is important information and what is simply a distraction from the real issues.

Either way LAFCO's decision about the vote goes, Feuer said, "we will have to look at the state of the city in a clear-eyed way and say, yes, there are problems everywhere. So where do we devote our energy? Is it to secede or to devote ourselves to solving our problems as a family?"

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