How—And Why—Cities Are Made

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East L.A.’s push for cityhood is only the latest in a long tug-of-war over boundaries in Los Angeles County. Here we break down the process:

The Landscape
The county is home to 137 unincorporated areas—neighborhoods that are not their own municipalities and that utilize the City of L.A.’s police force and public services and are represented by the County Board of Supervisors. 

The Petition
Would you prefer your area to be like one of the county’s 88 incorporated cities, such as Santa Monica and Pasadena, that have their own city councils and mayors? Then you’d need 25 percent of the registered voters in your area to sign a petition requesting cityhood from the Local Agency Formation Commission. 

The Money
Along with the petition, LAFCO requires a (costly) comprehensive fiscal analysis to see if the property and sales taxes you would be collecting would cover city services—law enforcement, sanitation, fire—for three years. If they don’t, they remain unincorporated. But if they do, it’s up to LAFCO to decide on whether it goes to a vote.

The Power
LAFCO’s board—a diverse nine-person coalition that currently includes county supes, city council members, and a “general public representative”—may take years to decide, weighing reports and testimonials. During a January session this year, board members heard four straight hours of public comment on the merits of East L.A. cityhood.

The Deciders
Unless someone has delayed matters by requesting the state controller’s review, LAFCO puts the measure on the ballot for prospective residents to vote on. (Don’t expect a slam dunk: Malibu and Calabasas were the last to declare independence, and that was in 1991.) If the stars align and the people vote yes, congratulations: You’re now officially your own city.

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