Los Angeles Times
November 17, 1996, Sunday, Valley Edition


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

The tug of war between the City Council and mayor over charter reform seems to have overshadowed the issue that prompted the battle: Secession--the idea of breaking Los Angeles into smaller jurisdictions--seems to have been set aside in favor of a political clash that threatens to lose sight of the benefits we could gain if we tackled the original problem--that Los Angeles is too large.

When interviewed about secession, city residents mention loyalty to sports teams or other sentimental reasons to keep Los Angeles whole. City officials and residents appear to fear the mechanics of a messy "divorce," and many express concern that seceding groups will leave the less wealthy behind.

I wish I could have an hour with these people to challenge their views. Breaking up the city is not a zero-sum game, where one group gains at the expense of others, but rather an opportunity to improve standards of living across the board. One need only look to our neighbors--Glendale, Burbank, Agoura Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica--to see the benefits of smaller city size. San Fernando, a tiny city surrounded by the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles, looks so attractive to nearby L.A. residents that they would like to break away and join it. City government in Los Angeles is too large to be responsive to community needs. Even the mayor knows that smaller cities function better. When he spoke at a Milken Institute labor conference recently, Mayor Richard Riordan was questioned about the optimal size for a city. He responded by saying that "if you are starting from scratch," a city should include fewer than 400,000 residents. This would mean 10 cities in what is now Los Angeles, and three cities in the Valley alone.

So what is keeping the mayor from taking the lead and proposing a plan to break up Los Angeles? He must think that the one-time costs of breaking up are greater than the benefits that would accrue over time. Given the potential for cheaper provision of services, a more responsive government and increased community involvement, this can't be true.

How many people have to move away before city officials see the lack of responsiveness to community needs as sufficiently important to support a breakup? As Bob Scott, a Valley lawyer and community activist, has put it, people are already "seceding." Many who carefully monitor the community and schools don't want to stay here.

Sometimes I feel like everyone I know is moving, or thinking about moving, to Ventura County. The tragic part is that our communities and schools are suffering the loss of these active residents, individuals likely to intervene when things go wrong.

Despite the lack of evidence of cross-city subsidies, many residents oppose breaking up because they think it will leave inner-city communities floundering without suburban support. My reply is: Have you read the papers? The City Council is not concerned with inner-city residents. It allocates funds to projects that benefit the well-connected few. The one thing city officials could do to help the inner city--encourage private-sector job opportunities--is discouraged by a business permitting process that is one of the most expensive and time-intensive in the country.

There is plenty of evidence that city programs cannot improve the situation in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The way to improve conditions in the inner city is from the inside out, by making its residents wealthier first. Inner-city residents who find jobs in nearby communities will have more money to spend. As their wealth increases, poverty and crime in their community decline, finally attracting businesses to these neighborhoods.

How is this related to secession? Smaller cities have an easier time meeting the needs of businesses seeking to locate within their boundaries (Burbank is a good example). The resulting growth in job opportunities in newly formed cities surrounding the inner city would do more for economically disadvantaged residents than the City Council could ever do.

Many middle- and upper-income residents do not see the potential for improvement, or they are not motivated enough by it to support a breakup. In the short term, they can make up for what the city fails to provide by living where crime rates are relatively low, sending their children to private schools or avoiding driving downtown. In the long term they can move elsewhere. But our inner cities cannot move. Attempts to better living conditions for the poor all over the world suggest that, without economic growth, inner cities have little chance for improvement.  

Many see a breakup of Los Angeles as divisive, something that will pit one ethnic group against another. They suggest that we work together, instead, to make the city a better place to live. But, we have been working together, and it has not been successful. Strong special interests dominate the City Council votes. Community representation is weak at best. Each council member has an incentive to secure benefits for his or her supporters but no incentive to isolate efficient government programs and eliminate the rest. Working together is an admirable goal, but it is not achievable in a city the size of L.A.

As for sentimental concerns: No matter how many cities were to occupy the area that is now Los Angeles, the Dodgers would still play ball in Chavez Ravine. We would not sacrifice one ounce of ethnic diversity--residents of West Los Angeles would be no closer and no farther from the Valley, Chinatown, the harbor or South-Central Los Angeles. Tourists would still come. We would still have world-class hotels and restaurants and the ability to attract Olympic-size events. Los Angeles would still be here, only it would be a better place to live.