One of my first impressions when I called the San Fernando Valley my home nearly 30 years ago was that this vast middle-class enclave suffered from a bad inferiority complex, like it was populated by a lot of Rodney Dangerfields who just couldn’t get respect.
Respect – or the lack of it – is still pretty much the problem, through the failed secession movement and derailed efforts to make local government more responsive.
The last vestige of a reform to change that is the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments, a little-known and largely ignored three-year-old, quasi-governmental body that brings together the county, the city of Los Angeles and the cities of Glendale, Burbank, San Fernando and Santa Clarita.
It is little-known and largely ignored for good reason: Unlike the 20-year-old COGs that link up all the other cities in the county to get grants and public investment to improve transportation, air quality, housing and other basics, the Valley COG requires unanimity, rather than a simple majority, to take any action. With seven L.A. Council members and L.A. County Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky — each with veto power — on the board, that makes significant action impossible.
Unlike all the other COGS that get hefty contributions from the member governments that give them annual operating budgets in the $1 million-to-$2 million range, the Valley COG is on a poverty diet with $10,000 a year from each of the member governments — the same $10,000 from the 23,564 people of the city of San Fernando that gets one vote as from the four million people of the city of Los Angeles that gets seven votes, reflecting the number of Council districts that fragment the Valley politically.
With that in mind, I headed Thursday to the Van Nuys Civic Center for the Valley COG’s bimonthly meeting with the full intent of writing its obituary, an untimely death that could be laid justly at the feet of the seven L.A. Councilmen and the two county supervisors who feared that somehow the four smaller cities were going to gang up on them and take all their money and power.
Executive Director Robert Scott, a longtime civic leader who was at the forefront of the secession drive and other efforts to give the Valley a political voice, started the ball rolling Thursday by explaining the various ways each government entity could have an equal vote and the other issues that need resolution, such as determining what constitutes a quorum and whether a simple majority or a super majority would be required.
“I think we all realize that it’s not the easiest thing to get a unanimous vote, especially on the issues we all deal with,” said Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian, the COG’s chair. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, except for a lot of the feel-good things like the Mobility Summit and let’s save-the-whales sort of stuff that we can all agree on.”
It didn’t take long for the hammer to fall.
Yaroslavsky’s representative, Ben Saltsman, said his boss “wholeheartedly agrees,” but the point of unanimity was “so one entity doesn’t get run over by the others.”
“I think the important point we need to focus on here is that the reason we got to … the unanimous vote was so that we knew the Valley was going forward together and it wasn’t going to be moving forward with bare majorities and 4-3 splits and a divided Valley. The point was to unite the Valley,” he said.
“So my suggestion is in the spirit of where you were trying to get the COG to go … maybe we ought to set a six-month deadline, refer this issue out to a steering committee and say in six months bring this back for a vote,” Saltsman added. “Right now, we’re just simply not ready to get past the unanimous point.”
Santa Clarita Councilwoman Marsha McLean, noting the issue has been discussed for more than a year, would have none of it.
“I don’t see why we need to wait another six months,” she said. “We already did that. We had a working group,”
Arriving a little late for a rare appearance at the COG, Antonovich, arguably one of the smartest and most effective local politicians of his generation, weighed in, saying, “The other COGs have been pretty effective. Each member has a vote and if it takes a majority as it does in the other COGs, then so be it. Each member has one vote and we move forward, and by that I mean each city has one vote and the county has one vote.”
The energy in the room suddenly changed.
“What I’m hearing is there is good news here, we want to move past the unanimous requirement,” Najarian responded.
“It was almost designed for failure the way it was put together,” Burbank Councilman Jess Talamantes said.
“The big question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want this COG to succeed and move forward in a positive direction or we’re not going to let it succeed and we’re going to put it aside…. I feel it’s very important, not only to my city but the region as well,” he said.
With everyone aboard, the COG members agreed to put the issue with various voting formulas on the agenda for a special meeting in April when other issues important to its future will be considered.
So instead of writing about the death of the Valley COG, I can say it is finally pregnant with possibilities. We might actually soon see the birth of an organization that unifies the region and gives it the platform to get the leadership and funding it needs to solve its problems, such as connecting the Metro transit lines from North Hollywood to Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena, and even Bob Hope Airport, to all Metrolink lines.
Then, like Rodney Dangerfield, we’d be laughing when we said we can’t get respect.