Los Angeles Times

August 22, 1999, Sunday, Valley Edition


A lot of people are interested in the consequences of secession. They wonder if things would really change if the San Fernando Valley broke away from Los Angeles. One way in which secession could benefit Valley residents is by empowering them, limiting the power of public employee unions in the political decision making process.

Los Angeles has strong public employee unions that resist reform. Large cities are fertile ground for such unions; they are more likely to be unionized. Size makes it harder for residents to monitor government and therefore facilitates acquisition of influence by public employees. Because the agenda of local government is influenced by the participation and relative strength of interest groups, any incremental shift of power away from a particular group, such as public employees, will have concrete consequences for public policy. Size and complexity in large urban governments give politicians cover. At times, this allows them to do things and to focus on issues that may not be central to a well-run city. Government actions are less transparent in a large city. This promotes alliances between politicians and public employees. Both parties gain. In exchange for campaign contributions and endorsements at election time, politicians give public employees financial and employment security, protection from pressures to produce.

In Los Angeles, the alliance between politicians and public employees has made it difficult to adopt innovative reforms that increase the accountability and efficiency of city services. When Mayor Richard Riordan was elected, he was enthusiastic about reforms that had worked well in other cities. He talked with researchers at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles public policy think tank that has studied the operation of cities. Riordan was gung-ho to try innovative ways to motivate more positive public sector outcomes, and he expressed interest in putting some city services out for competitive bidding. But opposition from public employees and the City Council was immediate and strong, and it was enough to kill the idea.

Breaking up Los Angeles would make it easier for residents to monitor city government. With greater levels of resident participation, the balance of power would shift away from public employees (and other special interests) and toward residents. If public employees were less influential, attempts to streamline the provision of city services in the new Valley city would be more likely to meet with approval.

Innovation in local government service provision has shown promise in other cities. In their book, "Revolution at the Roots," William D. Eggers and John O'Leary document the kinds of changes that can be made. In addition to competitive bidding and performance-based compensation schemes, which pressure public employees to be aware of the needs of the departments they serve, Eggers and O'Leary suggest that cities can thrive by focusing their efforts on core functions. None of these suggestions is popular with unions.

Of course, even if we detached from Los Angeles, the Valley would still be a very large city, subject to lobbying by public employees. And most likely, the new Valley government would detach with its share of city employees intact, bound to honor existing union contracts. But one thing is certain: Government would be closer to home, more transparent. The balance of power would shift, maybe only slightly, but politicians would have less cover for mutually beneficial relationships with public employees.

There is a lot of talk about breaking up a "great city" like Los Angeles. But without public sector reform, we must content ourselves with the status quo. Secession offers us the chance to shift power, to make reforms that will improve the efficiency and responsiveness of local government.