Santa Monica Lookout
Youth Center Leader and Santa Monica Staff Have Long History of Tense Relations
By Jason Islas
January 7, 2013 -- When the City Council decides Tuesday night whether to pull funding from Santa Monica's Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC), it could spell the end of long-standing tensions between city staff and the Center's executive director.
City officials have complained that the nonprofit, which receives over $300,000 of City money a year, has been poorly managed, leading to bad bookkeeping, serious governance problems and a lack of accountability for program outcomes.
But even from the beginning of the Center, which opened 11 years ago, PYFC's Executive Director and Founder Oscar de la Torre has butted heads with City officials.
De la Torre, who has been on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board since 2002, told The Lookout this weekend that is was “pattern of abuse of authority.”
Last month, the PYFC staff began circulating a petition to retain the Center's mission statement as well as the executive director until "an appropriate plan and timeline" is in place.
The petition has been signed by nearly 300 supporters.
The Pico Center has always had a tradition of community activism, which has long been a point of contention with City officials.
In 2002, the year the Center opened its doors, de la Torre helped organize a 100-person protest against several police officers who allegedly “were arresting 12 and 13 year olds and charging them with assault with a deadly weapon,” de la Torre said.
The group de la Torre worked with, Mothers for Justice, alleged that some officers in the Santa Monica Police Department were unfairly targeting low-income Latino and black children, the same demographic the PYFC was founded to target.
De la Torre claims that police officers tried to dissuade him from organizing protests by threatening PYFC's funding.
In 2004, the City decided to transfer oversight of PYFC away from Woodcraft Rangers, a regional youth organization, to the Center's advisory board partly over concerns that some of the activities kids at the PYFC were engaged in might be too politicized.
Staff suggested the changes to oversight so "that City funds are not used to conduct SMMUSD duties or political activities,” according to a memo to the Council from May 2004.
Staff wanted to assure that "City funding would not support community organizing, advocacy, youth leadership, youth development, or community events, areas where accountability issues have arisen," according to the memo.
As recently as 2011, de la Torre took several students on a field trip to Arizona in order to protest a new, more stringent immigration policy in the state.
De la Torre has insisted that the City is determined to take advocacy out of the organization's goals, which he says “the conservative elements of our community” are opposed to.
In 2005, de la Torre again butted heads with police when, after fights broke out at Santa Monica High School between black and Latino students, he brought a former gang member to a mediation meeting on campus.
Then-Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. publicly reprimanded de la Torre for bringing the man to SAMOHI, calling the move “unwise” and “dangerous.”
Five years later, De la Torre was investigated by police for allegedly not breaking up a fight nearby the Youth Center.
The District Attorney decided to drop charges after an independent review of the investigation showed that the investigating officer had conducted the investigation poorly.
De la Torre saw the investigation as a personal attack against him.
“Why do you think all of these attacks are coming down on me? Because I'm a viable candidate for City Hall,” he said, claiming that there is “institutionalized racism” within the SMPD.
In his most recent run-in with City Hall, de la Torre filed a complaint earlier last month with the City Attorney's office, alleging that City Manager Rod Gould has overseen a “pattern of bias and perceived discriminatory practices.”
De la Torre says that the same police officers who Mothers for Justice criticized are the same ones involved in the “attacks.”
If the Council decides Tuesday to defund the organization, the future of the organization is up in the air, though staff has committed “to ensure that there is no disruption in services for youth served by PYFC.”
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