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Santa Monica Youth Center Director Files Complaint Against City Manager

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

January 3, 2013 -- Days before the City Council decides whether to follow through with a staff recommendation to defund the troubled Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC), Executive Director Oscar de la Torre filed a complaint alleging that the City had quashed his freedom to speak out, The Lookout has learned.

De la Torre's complaint alleges that a Santa Monica police officer stopped him from speaking to the audience gathered in the Council chambers waiting for the Council members to come out of closed session. His complaint alleges that the officer was acting at the behest of City Manager Rod Gould.

Sources familiar with the situation said that the officer was likely confused by an audience member addressing the audience before the meeting was in session.

The claim comes after the Chair of PYFC's board resigned amidst the organization's financial trouble. Chair Amanda Seward, who was spearheading the organization's recovery from previous mismanagement, stepped down in December.

De la Torre “has made a claim,” said Mayor Pam O'Connor. “We've asked the City attorney to start collecting some data to understand what the facts of the matter are.”

De la Torre's perception is “that the city manager was stifling his ability to speak,” said O'Connor.

"Under the City Manager's authority, there have been many incidents that have attempted to violate civil rights and indicate an abuse of authority to stifle the PYFC, its mission and its voice," said de la Torre.

Since Gould technically works for the City Council, the Council will have to review the complaint.

Council member Bob Holbrook compared it to being unhappy with the conduct of a sailor on a battleship. “You talk to the captain,” he said.

O'Connor said, “We have an obligation to look into it and that's what we're doing.”

De la Torre said, "I'm glad that the complaint involving City Manager Rod Gould is being investigated."

The City Manager's office declined to comment.

“With personnel issues, we don't really discuss them,” said Assistant City Manager Kate Vernez.

De la Torre has been butting heads with the City over concerns about how the Pico Youth and Family Center is managed.

The City, which gives the nonprofit over $300,000 a year, became concerned when it noticed irregularities in the way the organization was managed.

In May 2012, Staff reported that de la Torre had been issued a duplicate pay check in October 2010 and an office manager had received two duplicate pay checks, one for October 2010 and one for November 2010.

The Council had given the organization until the end of the year to get its affairs in order. And as of October 2012, the outlook had been good.

The concerns were a result of “simple administrative problems,” said Seward in October. “We didn't have the administrative expertise.”

The organization had taken several steps to normalize its operations, including setting up a formal payroll as well as expanding its board of directors to include 13 members.

Since then, however, Seward has stepped down along with several other board members.

Seward was unavailable for comment.

The Council will have to decide, based on a staff assessment of the organization's progress, whether to renew funding for the nonprofit.

Holbrook said he would do anything possible to ensure the organization “provides the best service possible.”

“It's very important that at-risk kids in the community receive services,” he said. “We're not going to abandon the kids over this.”

PYFC was charted to target at-risk youth ages 16 and 24.

“Youth were to meet one or more of the following criteria: dropped out of local schools; enrolled at Olympic Continuation High School after dismissal from Santa Monica High School; were formerly incarcerated; identified as serious habitual offenders; or on parole or probation,” staff wrote in May's report.

The center had fallen short of some of these goals, City staff said.

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