Los Angeles Times
May 19, 1996


BYLINE: Shirley Svorny, Shirley Svorny is a professor of economics at Cal State Northridge, and an affiliated scholar at the Milken Institute for Job & Capital, Formation in Santa Monica 

I have mixed feelings about secession. I was born in Los Angeles and my dad used to tell me that Los Angeles is the best place in the world to live. This is my city. But the only reasons I can think of to support it staying together are sentimental. If faced with the decision today, I would vote to allow the breakup of the city of Los Angeles. I am troubled by its inability to meet the needs of residents.

Three years ago, when we elected Richard Riordan mayor, he promised to get Los Angeles moving again. His pro-growth campaign stressed making the city business-friendly by streamlining the regulatory process. He also wanted to make city government more efficient through privatization of some city services and adoption of private-sector management practices. The savings associated with improved efficiency were to be used to improve public safety. Yet the City Council, city employees and special-interest groups have stymied most of the mayor's attempts at reform. These powerful groups protect their own agendas and prevent reform because they have a captive audience in the residents of Los Angeles. We have few alternatives.

The only way to get serious change is to divide the city into several smaller cities. Rather than have the Valley secede, I'd prefer to see a breakup that involved the whole city. This would give each community a chance for self-determination, and change the focus from the Valley leaving to the entire city regrouping for change.

Dividing the city would create competition among governmental entities to improve conditions for residents and businesses. Because voters can locate in areas that meet their needs, and because not all people require the same set of public services, local control can direct scarce tax dollars to meet the specific needs of the community.

We already see how Burbank, with its lower business taxes, has attracted firms. Imagine five or six public entities coexisting in the area that is now Los Angeles.

Dividing Los Angeles would break some of the political alliances that favor powerful groups. Breaking up would end many established relationships that convey political favors to a select group of individuals. It is not that these alliances would not be reestablished, but rather that it would take time. There is evidence that, as cities age, the channels for obtaining political favors become better established, permitting mutually beneficial relationships between politicians and special-interest groups, but at a cost to the remaining residents. Also, what we think of as bureaucracy grows with time as individual bureaucrats attempt to extend the reach of their department or agency.

Only a drastic reorganization of public services, exposing them to competition and institutional constraints that limit public-sector growth, can give us a reprieve from the creep of government.

A breakup would allow innovative attempts at providing public services. We have seen how some charter schools, freed from the constraints of the Los Angeles Unified School District, have been able to experiment and innovate. If the city were to break up, each community would be able to try to improve upon the existing centralized rules that constrain how we provide services.

In an attempt to promote better bus service (cleaner buses, friendlier services) and facilitate access to popular destinations, some cities might allow private firms to offer services currently provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. To reduce costs, other cities might experiment with competitive bidding to provide trash collection or paramedic services. (In some areas, city workers have organized to bid and have won.) Eliminating building permits for "low-impact" home repairs or certain small businesses could save time and money for everyone. One city might decide to house a police SWAT team and sell the services of that team to neighboring cities.

A breakup of the city would permit experimentation with alternative arrangements for waste-water treatment. Already, several nearby cities buy sewage treatment from Los Angeles. We could privatize the Hyperion Treatment Plant and the new cities could buy waste-water treatment from it, or elsewhere, if Hyperion did not meet their needs.

We could lose some advantages associated with the large-scale provision of services, but this is unlikely. Capturing the economies of being large does not require the massiveness of Los Angeles. If anything, our size works against efficient government because of the inherent coordination, communication and incentive problems.

I don't mean to imply that if Los Angeles broke up things would be rosy. But competition among cities could greatly reduce political favors and improve government services. Some communities would find self-determination more rewarding than others. But the chance for improvement would exist . . . something that seems impossible in our current situation.