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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2023

Commentary—Summer’s Over, So Let’s Get Serious About Secession

As you tear open your Business Journal on this day after Labor Day, traditionally the first day after the last day of summer, we are also perhaps ending the silly season when it comes to news of the Valley secession movement. That season was appropriately capped the weekend before Labor Day when the Los Angeles Daily News ran a banner headline with type the size many papers would use to announce “WW II Ends” or “President Assassinated” to inform us that the Chatsworth/Porter Ranch Chamber of Commerce was the first local civic group to “formally endorse cityhood for the San Fernando Valley.” That scoop was perhaps motivated by the bad taste left in editors’ mouths after its competitor, the Los Angeles Times, three weeks earlier beat the Daily News with news that the president of Valley VOTE, Jeff Brain, happens to live in Glendale and not Los Angeles. That particular story went on to indicate that this is really not important news anyway by quoting secession advocate David Fleming saying of Brain, “We’ve got him doing chores. He just runs errands.” Sandwiched between those two news events was City Council President Alex Padilla’s commission appointments that many interpret as insults to the secession movement and the reactions that followed. None of this is intended to disparage the Chatsworth/Porter Ranch Chamber of Commerce one of almost two dozen chambers of commerce in the Valley or poor Jeff Brain his colleagues have done enough of that. It is instead, I hope, to put an exclamation mark to the end of the silly season and perhaps point out that election day in November 2002, what some consider D-Day in their struggle for secession, is almost exactly 14 months away. Most of the important issues and questions that we all left behind on Memorial Day remain now that Labor Day is history as well. Nothing has changed the decades of resentment that inspired secession: the potholes and street lights and police patrols that have been neglected, the disparity between taxes paid and services received, the inequities in the business tax process, the inequality in representation at City Hall. The belief remains that all these injustices can be resolved a la Burbank or Calabasas or Simi Valley, examples most often cited when advocates talk about the way some cities do it right and Los Angeles does it wrong. And it’s probably true that these and other political dilemmas can be resolved pretty quickly, given the likely enthusiasm that would accompany our latter-day Thomas Jeffersons into office. But I submit and this is the issue I hope those both for and against secession will address in the coming months that after the thrill is gone, what will be left to govern is not another Burbank or Calabasas, but the fifth largest city in the U.S. Instead of the charm of a suburban community of 100,000, there will be the challenges of a Houston or a Philadelphia or a San Diego. Rather than hearing about how Glendale attracts business to its town, I’d like to know how a new city would deal with the challenges of a giant metropolitan economy. While a new Valley city will certainly have a more consistent business tax system and a friendlier attitude toward business, what it will not have are: – its own water and sewer system, – its own electrical utility (and tell me that isn’t something San Francisco or San Diego, both smaller cities than this one would be, would like), – its own major airport, port or significant transportation hub of any kind. Then consider the fact that the Valley is built out to an extent few municipalities going into business for the first time are, leaving little available land for substantial new development, and I wonder what kind of significant resource the economic development arm of a new municipal government will have to offer. Will a reformed business tax be enough to compete with other comparably sized cities for Fortune 500 companies? Will a more cheerful attitude at a City Hall on Van Nuys Boulevard do the trick? Or will a new Valley city be left to resort to the kinds of gimmicks the Santa Claritas and Westlake Villages of the world must: offers of multi-decade tax rebates to snag a big box retailer? In the war to grow an economy, is the competition Calabasas and Burbank? Or is it Phoenix and Los Angeles? And if the answer is the former, will a municipal government that answers to 1.6 million citizens have the flexibility and ability to move as quickly as a much smaller rival bureaucracy will have? Or will it be as hamstrung by big-city imperatives as the diabolical Los Angeles is? Certainly, a robust business environment is only one goal of the current secession movement. Meaningful political representation and improved municipal services mean more to many people. And some will say that in the impending Internet world, factors like airports and electrical utilities become increasingly meaningless. So be it, but let’s see the evidence. Michael Hart is editor of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. He can be reached at mhart@sfvbj.com.

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