They are career politicians and citizen mayors. A retired judge, a veterinarian and former dairyman are lumped in there, too.

Twice each month, this group and their colleagues gather at Los Angeles County’s cavernous meeting hall downtown. Most times it’s before an empty audience chamber, a testament to the normally mundane land-use issues that the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission hash out these days.

Still, packed houses have jammed LAFCO meetings to watch board members tackle their biggest job: deciding whether to reject or approve proposed new cities. During the past decade alone, they presided over the births of Santa Clarita, Calabasas, West Hollywood and Diamond Bar.

And it’s that gatekeeper role that has made the sleepy board – one of 57 similar panels in each California county – the focus of Assemblywoman Paula Boland’s controversial bill to give the San Fernando Valley the right of self-determination.

By changing LAFCO law, the measure by Boland, R-Granada Hills, would strip the power that the Los Angeles City Council has had for the last 19 years to veto secession drives.

That unilateral power to crush breakaway movements – which can be invoked after LAFCO commissioners have studied and OK’d the new city, but before voters could settle the matter themselves in an election – is what Boland says is undemocratic.

“If, in fact, people want to self-govern themselves and it’s feasible, they should have the right to do so without the city of Los Angeles interfering,” she said. “But they want the whole enchilada.”

The state Assembly approved Boland’s measure this spring. It’s now in the Senate’s Rules Committee.

Tailoring her bill to apply only to Los Angeles, Boland included language that says it would apply to cities of more than 2 million people.

But the veto power isn’t the only significant legal fire wall separating unhappy enclaves from self-determination.

A Local Agency Formation Commission, for instance, must reject a breakaway if the commission believes the proposed city, and the parent city or county losing it, would be hamstrung fiscally by the change.

There are also gray areas in LAFCO law. One leaves open the possibility that a City Council could actually oversee the elections leading to the loss of its territory.

While Boland said she didn’t even think about these provisions, they could leave the parent city in a position to stymie or delay a LAFCO decision on secession, LAFCO officials said.

“The veto is the most obvious hurdle to secession, but there’s a lot of other issues that have to be addressed, and most of them have to do with finances,” said Jim Colangelo, head of the state’s LAFCO association. “It can get very complicated.”

When cityhood movements coalesce, LAFCOs follow a seven-step process to gauge whether there is enough public backing and money for a new municipality to survive.

One of those steps, quietly tacked onto the LAFCO charter by financially strapped California counties four years ago, requires that the commission certify any incorporation is “revenue neutral” so it’s not being driven by financial considerations.

Under this concept, commissioners must certify that the new municipality could wring the same amount of property taxes and other revenues from its citizens as the existing city spent on that area.

Likewise, if the established city took in more from the breakaway area in taxes than it spent, the breakaway area would have to make arrangements with the parent city to repay the difference.

The logic is that even if there are inequities, the parent city has the right to collect that differential so its remaining citizens won’t be hurt by the secession.

“Without researching the issue, there is no way to know how much that will be and for what period,” said L.A. County LAFCO executive director Larry Calemine, 61, a West Hills native. “I don’t know if anyone knows,” because no city has formed from an established one in a century.

Since revenue neutrality went on the books in 1992, incorporation drives have ground to a virtual standstill, said Colangelo, who was Calemine’s predecessor. In the last four or five years, only two new cities have been christened, Shasta Lake and Truckee, and those Northern California communities were formed from unincorporated county land, he said.

“It’s very complicated,” Colangelo added. “A big problem for the city of Los Angeles would be determining what they spent in the Valley.”

Board alternate Richard Close, who co-chairs a Valley umbrella group lobbying for the Boland bill, said he believes the Valley has everything it needs to be self-sufficient and unmoor itself from its sprawling and “inefficient” parent.

“The numbers will show it,” Close said. “We have the residential base. We have the sales from the various malls and business. We would be the sixth-largest city in the country. If West Hollywood and Malibu can do it, why not the Valley?”

After studying financial and social issues involving cityhood, LAFCO boards take a simple majority vote. If the commission OKs the breakaway, the matter is handed off to a “conducting authority” to hold additional hearings, log written protests and organize the election.

By law, that authority normally would be the county Board of Supervisors. However, LAFCO has the right to name the City Council whose territory is on the line as the authority.

If LAFCO were do to that in a Valley secession drive, it probably would stoke a bruising legal fight, given Los Angeles’ stake in losing its biggest suburb, LAFCO officials said.

Ron Deaton, the city’s chief legislative analyst and the architect of its lobbying drive against the Boland bill, said much of LAFCO law is open to interpretation.

“If someone said there is revenue neutrality, I don’t know what that means,” Deaton said. “There is not a great deal of description (in the law). It would take years” to figure it out.

Reacting to California’s population boom – and the rapid-fire development it bred – a commission appointed by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. three decades ago ushered in legislation creating Local Agency Formation Commissions.

Today, all LAFCOs work under the same mandate: weighing whether new government agencies are needed, preserving agricultural land, discouraging urban sprawl and settling boundary disputes.

Typically, the commissions vote on whether established cities can annex unincorporated county land, whether homeowners can connect to sewer and water systems and how agencies with overlapping responsibilities can work together.

“We’re not a high-profile group so people don’t know what we do,” said LAFCO Chairman Thomas Jackson. “But if you get out a map and start drawing lines, that’s where we start. We’re a diverse group with no political leanings.”

And a small one, too.

Working out of a cramped, two-room suite at the county Hall of Administration, Calemine, who earns $75,000 a year, has one full-time assistant, a part-time engineer, a couple of computers and a few color-coded maps. His $370,000 budget is financed by the city, county and filing fees.

“Even seeing the press at our meetings is a shock,” said LAFCO commissioner and County Supervisor Deane Dana.

The Valley – and the prospect it might want its own independence day – is no alien concept to the board.

Convinced the Valley wasn’t getting a fair shake by Los Angeles City Hall, Calemine, then-activist Paula Boland, Councilman Hal Bernson and other local activists in the mid-1970s formed a grass-roots committee to study a possible Valley city.

Moving to stop that movement in its tracks, Los Angeles city officials looked to Sacramento. Ultimately, they convinced Assemblyman John T. Knox, a Northern California Democrat who co-authored the law creating LAFCOs, to pen legislation in 1977 granting cities a veto over breakaway communities.

Alan Robbins, then a Democratic state Senator representing the Valley, was livid over that provision and the way it was handled. So, partly in response, he authored legislation granting the Valley its own LAFCO seat.

Today, it remains the only part of any city in the county with special representation.

“We knew sometime the issue of cityhood for the Valley . . . would come up and LAFCO would play a key role in our destiny,” said Robbins, later forced from office after a political corruption conviction. “We should have a voice in it.”

James DiGuiseppe, a property manager and retired Los Angeles municipal judge, fills that slot. His alternate is Close, a lawyer and president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association who co-leads VOTE, or Valley Voters Organized Towards Empowerment.

Ironically, Boland herself was DiGuiseppe’s alternate in the late 1980s.

Other regular LAFCO members, each serving four-year terms and earning $150 per meeting, include two of the five County Supervisors: Dana and Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke.

Bernson, another Boland bill supporter, is the city’s lone appointee.

His LAFCO colleagues include Jackson, Huntington Park Mayor and a florist by trade, and La Canada Flintridge Mayor John Hastings, a retired construction company executive. Both were appointed by the California League of Cities.

Larry Connelly, an Antelope Valley veterinarian and board member of the Littlerock Creek Irrigation District, and William Wentworth of the Walnut Valley Water District are special districts’ appointees.

Henri Pellissier, an ex-rancher and dairyman from the San Gabriel Valley, is the commission’s private-citizen appointee.