By CHRISTOPHER WOODARD Staff Reporter The last time Los Angeles County saw secession was in 1920, when Montebello detached from Monterey Park. The two sides simply sat down and worked out a quickie divorce that allowed each city to go its own way. “It was a gentlemen’s agreement,” said local historian Lee Gardipe. “Most of the stuff in the ’20s was done with a wink and a nod in the back room, and that was it.” Now, as government officials prepare to launch a detailed study of the breakup of the San Fernando Valley from the city of Los Angeles, the process is guaranteed to be anything but amiable or quick. Separating the Valley and its 1.6 million inhabitants from L.A. promises to be the messiest municipal divorce ever, with both sides expected to go to war over how assets and liabilities are divvied. “Nothing of this size has ever been attempted anywhere in the country,” said Larry Calemine, executive director of the Los Angeles County Agency Formation Commission, which oversees detachments. “There’s nothing in the way of legal precedence, legislative precedence or practical experience that you can look to in guiding us.” Calemine said a detachment of the Valley from L.A. amounts to an administrative process, one that entails studying the economic ramifications of a breakup and deciding whether it would hurt either side economically. But the process is likely to end up being more political than administrative. Evidence of that came almost immediately after Calemine announced last week that Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment (VOTE) had obtained enough signatures on petitions to require a detailed study of the breakup. Members of the Los Angeles City Council soon began squabbling over whether the city should pay part of the study’s estimated $1.8 million to $2.6 million cost. Mayor Richard Riordan also vowed to step up his offensive against secession. Valley VOTE, meanwhile, continued assembling a team of lawyers, economists and policy experts as it prepares to square off against L.A. officials over how the city’s assets and liabilities should be divided. “It’s going to be the biggest political battle in L.A. history,” said Valley VOTE Chairman Richard Close. “This is going to make ‘Chinatown,’ the Mulholland story, look tame in comparison.” VOTE will continue to raise money for its team of experts, but the group will not be contributing to the LAFCO study, which Close said should be paid for by the government, not the petitioners. East Valley Councilman Joel Wachs has gone on record saying the city should help pay. Valley council members like Michael Feuer and Cindy Miscikowski are undecided, while Councilwoman Laura Chick is flatly opposed. Close believes the council’s position is irrelevant because under terms of its agreement with L.A. County, the city is committed to funding part of the cost of running LAFCO, and by extension the city should help pay for the study as well. Still, the squabbling is just a sample of the contentiousness to come. “The downtown politicians don’t give up power easily. They will fight to keep the Valley as part of the city,” said Close. Secessionists also fear L.A. officials may attempt to obstruct the process by making it difficult for LAFCO to gather information on city assets. Close said such attempts will only strengthen the Valley’s resolve. “If their plan is to not provide information and/or funding for the study, it will cause even more unrest in the San Fernando Valley,” said Close. “If their idea of fighting is to provide more city services, more police officers, it’s a win-win situation.” As part of the process, VOTE will be required to present its plan for turning the Valley into a self-contained city, explaining what assets and liabilities should be shared. L.A. officials will have a chance to rebut VOTE’s plan or object to any specific points. Close said his group will push for an arrangement in which the new Valley city would not own L.A. facilities outside of the Valley, hoping to work out a compromise in which the Valley would give up control of, say, City Hall in return for other assets closer to home. Divvying up other assets, such as the Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles International Airport and sewer treatment facilities, could be accomplished through joint powers agreements that allow the Valley and city to share control. Ultimately, it will be up to the nine-member LAFCO board to give a thumbs up or down to Valley secession. If the board concludes that splitting Valley off would not cause economic harm to either entity, the issue would be put to the voters. Secession would have to be approved by a majority in the Valley and by a majority of the city as a whole. VOTE officials are looking to the November 2000 ballot, but Calemine and others say 2002 is a more realistic projection due to the complexity of the process.