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Will Los Angeles let Tinseltown go?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- If prominent local nightclub owner Gene La Pietra had his way, the famous HOLLYWOOD sign on the hills overlooking the movie mecca of the world would now be painted red, white and blue.

His proposal to so adorn the huge white letters on the hillside would have shouted Tinseltown's patriotism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. La Pietra declared during a debate the other night at a church a block north of Hollywood Boulevard.

He and Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the area downtown, were stating the case for and against breaking Hollywood away from Los Angeles and making it a city of its own, up for a Los Angeles-wide vote in November.

The Los Angeles City Council blocked the plan to use the famous landmark to proclaim Hollywood's support of the war on terrorism, Mr. La Pietra argued, providing an example of why residents of Hollywood should vote for local control of their governmental affairs.

Mr. Garcetti, playing the Sept. 11 card himself to make the case against Hollywood cityhood, told the audience that on that date "we learned what happens when we come apart" and the aftermath demonstrated the "strength in coming together."

On a much smaller scale, the campaign for an independent Hollywood mirrors the simultaneous effort of the sprawling San Fernando Valley to break away from the nation's second-most-populous city, but with significant differences.

As in that campaign, the petitioning area must win 50 percent plus one vote in both the local area and citywide to win its independence.

But unlike the San Fernando Valley plan, which would have the new city provide all public services except fire protection, Hollywood, if it became a city, would contract with "already established entities" in Los Angeles city and county for police and fire protection, power and water.

While Mr. La Pietra argues that his side will win overwhelmingly in Hollywood among residents frustrated by poor city services and lured by prospects of a revitalized, tourist-friendly town, winning approval citywide may not be easy.

To many outsiders and visitors, Hollywood and its glitz personify Los Angeles, and Angelenos may not be willing to cut it loose. But Mr. La Pietra offers a laissez-faire argument for Angelenos doing so. Many of them, he predicts, "will say, 'Good riddance. Let them go. If they want to go, let them.'"

To win a place on the ballot in November, the proponents of cityhood gathered 45,000 signatures.But two local residents at the debate, Pea Hsu and Andrew Glazier, said the names were collected by asking residents merely whether they favored a study about the feasibility of breaking away, not cityhood itself.

The nub of the pro-secession argument, as Mr. La Pietra put it in the debate, is that "smaller is better," and that a separate city would be more efficient and cheaper. He noted that Mr. Garcetti is only one of 15 on the Los Angeles City Council with a constituency that also includes other parts of the city. The new city would have a five-member council focused within Hollywood's borders.

The proponents of secession say Los Angeles now spends $168 million a year to "run" Hollywood, and an independent city could do the job with $107 million, meaning lower taxes. Also, they say, Hollywood taxes pay for 396 police officers, but the area gets only 313.

A problem for the proponents is that Hollywood's downtown, once infamous for grimy streets, homeless wanderers and seedy drug addicts, has already begun to put on a better face. New business development, including the scrubbing up and resurrection of famous old theaters, is an argument for the status quo.

Mr. Garcetti told the debate audience that the threat of a breakaway is already scaring off developers and therefore "Hollywood's turnaround is fragile." In the end, Mr. Glazier says, "I don't believe a majority of Los Angeles wants to lose the mythical core of the city."

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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