Santa Monica Lookout
Santa Monica Youth Nonprofit to Keep Funding Through June
By Jason Islas
January 10, 2013 -- At an emotional meeting that stretched into the early morning Wednesday, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to continue funding the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) through the end of June, provided that the organization continues working with outside agencies to improve practices.
Before the meeting, PYFC Founder and Executive Director Oscar de la Torre led a protest of nearly 100 of the organization's supporters in the lobby of City Hall.
The vote took place around 3 a.m. Wednesday morning after the Council heard over two hours of testimony from new and former PYFC Board Members, the kids who currently attend the center and alumni.
The speakers had waited through a six hour discussion of a previous item to testify.
“It should be possible for the Pico Youth and Family Center to be able to do both, provide the services and meet the grant funding requirements,” City Manager Rod Gould said.
The those ends, Gould said that the PYFC should continue working with Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs (SEE), a nonprofit which helps other nonprofits with administration and accounting, as well as other external agencies to help normalize operations.
Many of the 60 speakers turned out to show their support for the organization and de la Torre, who is at the center of a controversy over the PYFC's finances and administrative problems.
“It's not a question of whether de la Torre step downs, it's a question of whether funding the Pico Youth and Family Center is the best way to serve the population,” Gould said.
The PYFC was founded specifically to target at-risk youth ages 16 to 24 and is currently the only nonprofit of the 29 in Santa Monica that serves this population.
“This is about good versus evil, right versus wrong,” one speaker said. The idea that not cutting funding to the PYFC was “the right thing to do” was an oft-repeated mantra Tuesday night.
Some speakers leveled accusations of racism at the Council, City Staff and the City Manager, claiming that they wanted to defund PYFC because they didn't want Latino and black people to be empowered.
Staff expressed concern about the way de la Torre ran the organization.
Human Services Administrator Setareh Yavari told the Council that the organization had no checks and balances, unresovled fiscal irregulaties and had received an unprecedented amount of oversight and support from the City but the results had been unsatisfactory.
The staff report mentioned that de la Torre, who is also a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education, was paid for work at the PYFC on a day he was away on SMMUSD business.
“Had the Board Chair not visited the Center on November 30, the inappropriate salary expense to the City grant would not have been discovered,” staff wrote. “This falsification of his timecard by the Executive Director is another example of the need for strong governance and administrative oversight currently lacking at PYFC.”
The staff report was accompanied by letters of resignation from several of the six former members of the PYFC advisory board who stepped down in December, including former chair Amanda Seward who laid much of the blame for the organization's troubles at de la Torre's feet.
“You're one of the best organizers I've ever known, but you are not an administrator,” Council member Kevin McKeown told de la Torre from the dais.
But it's clear that many who came out to support the organization also felt strongly that de la Torre is integral to the PYFC.
“If Oscar were taken out of the program, I feel that PYFC would crumble,” one speaker told the Council.
De la Torre told the Council that he would be willing to step down as executive director by March 31 as “an act of goodwill.”
“That's what I put on the table last night and it is still undetermined if it is acceptable or not to all parties involved,” de la Torre told The Lookout Wednesday.
In May of last year, the Council voted to give PYFC staff until the end of the year to deal with the various problems the City had identified.
Staff recommended defunding the organization, which receives $307,000 of City money annually, because it failed to address ongoing administrative, programming and bookkeeping issues.
“We were up against a series of lies and a staff report that was developed with malicious intent, but the young people and the Truth once again prevailed,” de la Torre said.
De la Torre has maintained that "conservative" elements in the community have been trying to close the PYFC over much of its decade-long life.
It isn't just City funding that the organization stands to lose, however. Currently, there is a $1.6 million endowment from the estate of Peggy Bergmann for the PYFC pending.
“The estate attorney who executed the $1.6 million endowment asked for the check to be returned to her while PYFC issues are resolved,” according to a report prepared by the consultant contracted by SEE.
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