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OPPONENTS LIKELY TO SUE IF VOTERS OK CITYHOOD PENSIONS, DISTRICTS, AIRPORT MAY BE DEAL-BREAKER ISSUES.

Byline: Harrison Sheppard Staff Writer

It's now likely that San Fernando Valley cityhood will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, and equally likely that voters who go to the polls that day will not have the final word.

Instead, that heady privilege may belong to the courts, with a variety of secession opponents potentially ready to sue - after the vote, if cityhood wins.

Legal experts and observers of the secession process say if cityhood passes, numerous details of the proposal could be subject to expensive litigation that could last for years.

That does not necessarily mean Valley cityhood itself, if approved, would be delayed or overturned. But issues such as employee rights, water and power rates, minority voting power, ownership of Van Nuys Airport and several others could be left in limbo for years.

``I think you're going to have lots and lots of litigation over all sorts of issues,'' said Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor who helped craft the new Los Angeles city charter.

``There are so many issues to sort out in terms of resources and in terms of political power. And I think what we do as a society when we don't have other places to resolve our differences is turn to the courts.''

While observers say the city of Los Angeles is the most likely to file a lawsuit, city officials insist they have no such plans at this time. But the city's municipal unions and a Latino political group said they may very well file suit if they disagree with decisions made by the government agency crafting the cityhood plan.

Secession supporters, however, say it is highly unlikely they would sue if the Local Agency Formation Commission makes any decisions that don't go their way. LAFCO is scheduled to decide May 22 whether to place cityhood on the ballot.

Suing, especially before the vote, could be a difficult undertaking because state law provides strong support for LAFCO. The law says a LAFCO decision cannot be overturned unless there is evidence of fraud or abuse of discretion.

``This will be a significant hurdle for anybody challenging any of LAFCO's determinations to overcome,'' said LAFCO's chief legal adviser, Assistant County Counsel John Krattli.

But abuse of discretion can be interpreted as something that violates state law, Krattli noted; the city of Los Angeles has already made that argument about several LAFCO decisions.

For example, the City Attorney's Office has argued that LAFCO has no legal authority to force the Department of Water and Power to charge equal rates to the Valley city because they say that right is guaranteed in the state constitution. The County Counsel's Office has ruled LAFCO does have that power.

The city has also disputed LAFCO's authority to transfer city assets at no cost, although city officials have voluntarily agreed to the transfer of most assets except Van Nuys Airport.

The issue of lawsuits is a dicey one for city officials who oppose secession. Mayor James Hahn, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Council President Alex Padilla have already pledged to support placing cityhood on the Nov. 5 ballot, so any threat of a lawsuit could be seen as obstructionist and violating their word.

``There would be such outrage that it would help us in the polls tremendously,'' predicted secessionist Richard Close, chairman of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment.

That doesn't mean, however, that city officials have absolutely ruled out a lawsuit. But to fit the political position they have already taken, they would have to file a suit that doesn't block a vote, but instead seeks to alter the proposal either before or after voters make their decision.

A Hahn spokesman said the mayor remains committed to getting cityhood on the November ballot and there have been no discussions about litigation.

``Lawsuits are not a consideration for us,'' said Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook. ``Our focus is, as it's always been, to work through these negotiations with LAFCO to make sure there's a proposal on the ballot that is fair and equitable to people in all parts of the city.''

There are no such political constraints on third parties.

Among those who are most likely to file suits are the California Latino Redistricting Coalition - which last week threatened to sue over a perceived lack of Latino influence in the proposed Valley city council districts - and the city's municipal unions, which have pledged to stop at nothing to fight secession.

``This is the union's top priority - keeping Los Angeles together,'' said Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 347, the city's biggest municipal union.

While Local 347 ``probably'' won't try to block secession from getting on the ballot, Butcher said, union officials are willing if necessary to sue either before or after the election to protect employees' interests. Their attorney is continuing to carefully monitor the issue and sees it as his ``number one priority for the year,'' she said.

Alan Clayton, research chairman of the California Latino Redistricting Coalition, said the group is prepared to seek court action if LAFCO does not revise its maps to increase the number of city council seats that could be won by Latinos. Last week he accused LAFCO's consultant of crafting maps that pack Latinos into two districts out of 14, thereby diluting their influence in the other districts.

In the late 1980s, the coalition persuaded the U.S. Department of Justice to sue the city and county over their district maps. The city backed down and redrew its maps, while the county - which used one of the same redistricting consultants that LAFCO is now employing - fought in court and lost.

Clayton said the coalition will definitely complain to the federal government if the Valley map is not changed, but he is not sure if the complaint would be filed before or after the vote.

``We're definitely committed to asking the Justice Department to sue in federal court to overturn the map,'' Clayton said. ``The timing of when we do it will depend on what the law says.

``We're not advocating stopping the ballot. We're advocating the Justice Department put people on notice: If this passes, you open yourself up to litigation.''

Valley VOTE leaders have strongly sided with Clayton, and LAFCO officials have said they believe their maps meet the requirements of the law, and were drawn to take into account other factors besides ethnicity, such as keeping communities of interest together. Still, they decided last week to take another look at their maps to try to head off the possibility of a lawsuit.

Other groups that might sue are the public safety unions. Fire Capt. Ken Buzzell, president of the firefighters union, is concerned that Los Angeles firefighters who go to work for the new city will lose their years of payments into the current pension system because the Los Angeles City Charter does not allow transfer of pension benefits to other cities. LAFCO, he said, has yet to guarantee that those pensions will be protected.

``If we can't resolve that problem, we're going to do what we have to do to protect our members,'' Buzzell said.

Close, the Valley VOTE chairman, has already ruled out the possibility of suing if LAFCO does not place secession on the ballot, saying recently that ``lawsuits are for losers.''

He said it is also highly unlikely that secessionists would sue to change portions of the LAFCO plan.

``It is extremely difficult to overturn anything LAFCO does,'' Close said. ``That's the good news and that's the bad news. It's good news that L.A. city and the unions are going to have an extremely difficult time getting the courts to overturn anything. Likewise, we have the same problem. That's why this needs to be fought administratively, not through the courts.''

All of this, of course, is speculation because nothing of this scale has ever happened before. State laws governing the process were designed primarily to apply to incorporations of small cities out of unincorporated county land, not to a detachment and reorganization. And that makes lawsuits all the more likely.

``Many unique issues have come up during the course of these proceedings that have simply not been addressed by the courts,'' said Krattli, the LAFCO counsel. ``And there are many fundamental questions that have arisen during the proceedings for which there is a dearth of case law applicable to.''

Still, Krattli said, he is confident that the County Counsel's Office has interpreted statutes and case law correctly.

``We expect the advice that we've given will be upheld ultimately,'' Krattli said.

Ironically, however, if it is true that all the county counsel's advice is upheld, it could backfire on LAFCO.

The commission made at least one major decision that contradicted its own attorney's advice, a situation legal experts say is ripe for litigation.

The County Counsel's Office ruled that if LAFCO turns over assets like police stations and the airport to the Valley, the new city would have to compensate Los Angeles. But secessionists obtained a conflicting legal opinion from the state legislative counsel that said those assets could be transferred without payment. LAFCO's current plan picks the state opinion and ignores its own attorney's advice.

Legal experts said there is a possibility that a lawsuit filed after an election could invalidate the measure, but there is a tough standard to meet.

If someone sues after a vote over one aspect of the plan and the court rules in the plaintiff's favor, the next question is how important that element is to the overall package, said attorney Fred Woocher, an expert on election law. For example, if the court rules that Van Nuys Airport should stay with Los Angeles, it then must decide whether the airport was a key element to voters or just a side issue. If it was key, then the entire election might be invalidated, he said.

``You would say, Wait, that might have been the critical condition that caused people to vote for it,'' Woocher said. ``It's not clear that any given thing would be severable or not. Which is one argument for why maybe it should be looked at before it goes on the ballot.''

In the City Attorney's Office, a spokeswoman for Delgadillo said he prefers not to solve disputes in the courts but has not flatly ruled it out, either.

``The case we're hoping to win is to convince Valley voters that secession is not necessary,'' said Delgadillo spokeswoman Mary Maguire. ``Rocky believes that all parties are best served if we can keep this process out of the courts and in the hands of the people.''

Secession opponents are expected to play up the unknowns during the political campaign ahead, and the possibility of lawsuits feeds into that uncertainty.

Last year, when city Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton was criticizing a suggestion to have LAFCO divide ownership of the Department of Water and Power, he noted that voter approval doesn't automatically grant legitimacy.

``Just because you vote on it,'' Deaton said, ``doesn't make it so.''

THE ISSUES

The San Fernando Valley secession issue is ripe for litigation, legal experts say. Any person who lives in the city or any organization with a stake in cityhood could file a lawsuit either before or after the November vote. Here are some issues that observers say may be decided by the courts.

--Valley council districts. A group representing Latino voting rights has already threatened to sue if the Local Agency Formation Commission doesn't redraw the maps to give Latinos more influence.

--Police and fire pensions. The firefighters union is concerned that its members would lose their pension benefits if they leave Los Angeles to work for the new city.

--Ballot measure wording. Election law experts say there are occasionally disputes over factual information given to voters.

--Van Nuys Airport. The city of Los Angeles does not want to give the airport to the new Valley city and has argued that LAFCO has no legal right to force the transfer. The federal government also would have to agree to the transfer.

--Environmental impact report. The city, or any third party such as an environmental group, could claim the project's environmental impacts were not sufficiently analyzed. The city has already filed a lengthy set of objections to the draft EIR.

--Utility rates. City officials believe it is unconstitutional for LAFCO to force the city to charge Valley residents rates equal to those paid by Los Angeles residents.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 5, 2002
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