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VALLEY SPLIT FACING HURDLE L.A. MIGHT SUE OVER ASSETS.

Byline: Harrison Sheppard Staff Writer

Challenging San Fernando Valley secession arguments, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo argued Tuesday that a new Valley city may not have a right to police stations, parks and libraries or other assets it pays for unless Los Angeles agrees to give them up.

Secession leaders argue that Valley taxpayers have paid for those assets over the years through their taxes and should receive them as part of the divorce if voters approve the breakup.

Delgadillo's legal opinion submitted to the county agency overseeing the secession study suggested the city would be in a position to sue successfully if basic assets other than streets were turned over to the new city.

``This letter wasn't written with the intention of advocating for one side or advocating for one particular issue,'' said Delgadillo spokesman Ben Austin. ``It was written with the intention of raising legal issues and questions that are better dealt with now than further along in the process.''

By dealing with those issues now, Austin said, both sides are reducing the possibility of a lawsuit later.

But Valley secessionists saw it as a continuation of City Hall's efforts to obstruct the study process and dictate to the county Local Agency Formation Commission which is expected to set the terms for breakup by next summer and put the issue on the November 2002 ballot.

City officials, they said, have consistently thrown up roadblocks, tried to slow down the process and threatened to sue if they don't get their way.

``Clearly, this is another attempt to confuse and mislead LAFCO and the public,'' said Richard Close, chairman of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment.

``This is a reorganization of the city. It's not a seizure of property. Our attorneys have indicated to LAFCO that LAFCO has the authority to reorganize city assets as part of the terms and conditions of the Valley cityhood ballot measure,'' Close said.

The letter was sent to the county counsel, which provides legal advice to LAFCO.

Assistant County Counsel John Krattli is currently drafting an opinion on the key question of whether LAFCO has the ability to transfer assets without compensation and without the consent of Los Angeles.

Valley VOTE expects to submit its own legal analysis to the county counsel today.

The issue is important because it could determine whether a new Valley city would have its own police and fire stations, libraries, parks and other facilities, or whether Los Angeles would continue to own those assets even though they are located in the new city.

The City Council on Tuesday approved submittal of the city attorney's letter on a 13-0 vote. But Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents the Northwest Valley and is an alternate LAFCO member, said while he voted in favor of sending it on, he disagreed with the chief conclusion.

``I think LAFCO does have the authority,'' Bernson said. ``It is a state- designated body that is expressly for the purpose of handling land acquisitions, incorporations and separations. I do believe the authority exists.''

The Valley group and city officials are in negotiations in an attempt to work out many of the details of the final cityhood proposal.

But so far, there has been little agreement on the major issues, and it will ultimately be up to LAFCO to decide. At that point, the question becomes how much authority LAFCO has under state law, including whether the commission can give Los Angeles municipal assets to the new city without compensation.

Delgadillo's letter, drafted by senior counsel Frederick Merkin and Assistant City Attorney Mary Strobel, notes there is no case law that directly addresses a secession attempt because such attempts are extremely rare - only once in the last century. It says LAFCO's authority to transfer assets without compensation or consent is ``open to serious doubt'' and says compensation ``may be required.''

The letter also states that the legislation that governs LAFCO, the 1985 Cortese-Knox Act, ``does not require, but authorizes, LAFCO to transfer assets in the event of a special reorganization. Whether compensation is required for any transfer is unclear.''

Given that uncertainty, Merkin turned to other state laws, such as those governing eminent domain property takings. Under eminent domain law, the state - in this case LAFCO, an agency created by the state - cannot take property, including property owned by another government entity, without compensation, he wrote.

City negotiators have said while they don't think LAFCO should be able to arbitrarily hand over assets, they are open to the possibility of agreeing voluntarily to hand them over to the new Valley city without compensation if all the other financial issues connected with secession are resolved without harm to the city.

City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, a secession opponent who chairs the council's secession committee and is a LAFCO member, said the city first wants to establish its right to compensation. Whether the city will exercise that right will depend on the negotiations, she said.

``Obviously, negotiations can occur after a foundation is laid,'' Miscikowski said. ``That's what I think this letter is attempting to do, to say this is what the foundation is, this is the platform from which negotiation must occur.''

CONSENT AND COMPENSATION

The City Attorney's Office issued a letter Tuesday raising doubts about the Local Agency Formation Commission's ability to hand over Los Angeles assets to a new San Fernando Valley city without consent or compensation. Here are some points raised in the letter:

--The Cortese-Knox Act, which governs LAFCOs, authorizes LAFCO to transfer assets but does not make it clear whether compensation is required.

--Therefore, other state laws, such as those governing eminent domain property seizures, apply. In such cases, the state cannot take property from a private or public landowner without compensation. For example, in 1963 when the state took city property from Griffith Park for a freeway, it had to compensate Los Angeles.

--If LAFCO tries to transfer property without compensation or consent, a court would see it as an unfair land taking, no different than the state Legislature seizing property from a private landowner for no compensation.

Valley secessionists, however, contend that creation of a Valley city is a different situation legally - one more like a divorce, in which each side gets a share of assets. They believe LAFCO has the power to act like a judge and decide who gets to keep what.

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CONSENT AND COMPENSATION (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 14, 2001
Words:1067
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