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LA's angry suburbs threaten to secede

This was not, it was clear, California's answer to the break-up of the Soviet Union. The dozen people gathered on the steps of a boarded- up municipal building in the San Fernando Valley were law-abiding businessmen and homeowners who cleared their throats before they spoke.

No, no, they insisted, they weren't ready to declare their independence from Los Angeles. They didn't even want to talk about secession, or the "mega-divorce", as one headline irreverently called it. While they spoke of democracy and self-determination, they were more interested in policing and potholes.

The city of Los Angeles on any map resembles two large splodges joined at the hip by the Santa Monica mountains. The south-eastern blob contains most of what visitors think of as Los Angeles: Hollywood, the downtown, the airport. Geographically it also embraces Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, although they are separate municipalities.

The Valley, to the north-west, is home to 1.2 million people, roughly a third of LA's' population. Taken alone, it would be the sixth largest city in the country and one of the richest. But it is treated like a poor stepchild, said Irwin Silon, a member of the chamber of commerce at the meeting.

"You go travelling, somebody asks you where you are from, you say the San Fernando Valley and they say `where is that?' People don't come to the Valley because nobody knows anything about it."

On 12 June the California Senate votes on a bill pushed by local assemblywoman, Paula Boland, that would remove the right of the LA city council to veto a secession vote by the Valley or any other part of the city.

The Boland Bill's chances of passage seem poor. But it has revived long- held gripes that the government of a city with 3.4 million people and covering an urban mass that stretches for 60 miles is a sprawling monster, which is dysfunctional and out of touch.

For Valley residents, driving to City Hall to make a point is easily a two-hour round trip. Secession, supporters say, may be one answer.

"It's too big, just too big. Split it, break it up," said Raymond Jackson, who blamed gangs, graffiti and abandoned buildings in the mostly black south-east section of the Valley on years of short-changing by the city.

The Los Angeles city charter was drawn up in 1925 when a population of 900,000 included just 25,000 in the Valley. It was only after the Second World War that its citrus groves were carved up for cheap suburban housing along endless straight avenues criss-crossing the valley floor. Eighty- six per cent of the homes were built after 1950.

Although it has nearly half of LA's 467 square miles, the Valley has only a fraction of its sights and restaurants and just one museum, the "Merle Norman Classic Beauty Collection", which boasts vintage cars and mechanical musical instruments.

But the LA Daily News, the Valley's newspaper, a poor sister of the Los Angeles Times, has championed the Boland Bill and the cause of a separate Valley identity. "Why do the downtown powers treat the Valley with unfairness, disrespect and outright contempt?" it asked in a recent editorial.

"This is part of the ongoing debate on how to reform city government," said Councilman Michael Feuer. People in LA from South Central to the up-market West Side, like residents of every major city in every country in the world, felt "very frustrated, that they've got the short end of the stick," he said.