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LAWSUIT SERVED TO STOP VOTE ON VALLEY SECESSION.

Byline: Harrison Sheppard Staff Writer

The first lawsuit seeking to block the Nov. 5 San Fernando Valley secession vote was served Wednesday, claiming that the proposal's environmental studies were inadequate and should be redone.

Robert F. Hunt, general counsel to one of the city's biggest municipal unions but acting as an individual, asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to grant a preliminary injunction blocking the Nov. 5 cityhood vote until a full environmental impact study is done.

``This doesn't stop an ultimate vote (sometime in the future),'' Hunt said. ``The theory of the suit is a proper study should be done so when the vote is taken, people have it in front of them, to either read it, ignore it or do whatever they wish with it.''

If the court blocks the election, the vote would be put off until at least 2004 under state law.

Hunt, general counsel to Service Employees International Union Local 347 for 11 years, said he is acting on his own without support from the union, which opposes secession.

``I don't want to sue. I want to win (at the ballot box),'' said Julie Butcher, general manager of SEIU Local 347. ``We're not paying for it. He does have a right to act as an individual. He works here, we don't own him. If I could talk him out of it, I would.''

Secessionists portrayed the suit as a political tactic to block an election, not one motivated out of genuine concern for the project's environmental impacts.

``The real question here is why are (Mayor James) Hahn and his allies, the union, trying to prevent the voters from voting on this issue?'' said Richard Close, chairman of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment.

``Clearly they realize, as our polls bear out, that we're going to win in November, and therefore the only way they can stop a new Valley city is to try to prevent a vote in November - which is what is being asked for in this lawsuit. It's a political lawsuit with no legal merit.''

Close said he had no evidence of a direct link with Hahn other than that Hunt works for the SEIU, which is allied with Hahn in his anti-secession fight, and that Hunt has retained a law firm that works for the city.

Hunt hired Kane, Ballmer & Berkman, a downtown law firm that specializes in land-use issues and does legal work for Los Angeles and dozens of other cities throughout Southern California.

Hahn's office said the mayor has no involvement with the suit. ``We don't know anything about the lawsuit,'' said spokeswoman Julie Wong.

The suit was filed against the Local Agency Formation Commission, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the four secession supporters who signed the paperwork to launch the LAFCO secession study, including Valley VOTE President Jeff Brain.

LAFCO decided May 22 to place Valley secession on the Nov. 5 ballot. After that decision, opponents had 30 days to file a suit based on the EIR, meaning Hunt's suit came in two days before the deadline. The supervisors are named because the county is conducting the election and the Board of Supervisors makes the official decision to place the question on the ballot.

The legal standard to overturn a LAFCO decision is a fairly high one, according to experts, but the EIR is seen as one of the easiest targets. Plaintiffs must prove that the commission's decision was based on ``fraud or prejudicial abuse of discretion.''

Hunt uses that term in his legal filing, saying the decision was ``arbitrary, capricious and constituted a prejudicial abuse of discretion and should be set aside and invalidated by the issuance of a writ of mandate.''

Attorney Fred Woocher, an election-law specialist who is not involved in this case, said courts have some reluctance to go against the initiative process, which involves the collection of voter signatures and a vote of the people, but they do set aside elections more often than the public might realize.

``You've got a pretty big hurdle,'' said Woocher, who is based in Santa Monica. ``Yes, if there clearly was illegal action taken, it's the court's obligation to remedy that illegal action and say: OK, we're not going to let it go forward.

``But they are both human in their own assessment of things, and as a matter of giving deference to the initiative petitioning process and the way government functions, the courts would need to be convinced there was in fact a serious violation here in order to prevent an election from going forward.''

The court could allow the election to proceed while the case is heard and then possibly invalidate the entire election afterward, he noted.

Hunt's attorney, June Ailin, said LAFCO's environmental impact report assumed that no environmental impacts would occur because of cityhood.

``An environmental impact report is supposed to assist the decision maker, whoever the decision maker is, and that includes the voters,'' Ailin said. ``We think the voters are not being given adequate information about the environmental effect of creating a new city.''

LAFCO officials declined comment.

Close, who is an alternate LAFCO commissioner and a real estate attorney who has worked on EIR litigation, said the study was adequate because there are no obvious environmental impacts created by a change in governmental structure. Instead, any individual projects that come before the new city's government would be subject to individual environmental review, he said.

``Merely setting up a city council for the Valley creates no environmental impacts,'' Close said. ``Any project done by the new city would have to have environmental impact reports.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 20, 2002
Words:934
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