HELPING HAND: Pico Youth & Family Center is located on Pico Boulevard. The center was created to help at-risk youth. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

HELPING HAND: Pico Youth & Family Center is located on Pico Boulevard. The center was created to help at-risk youth. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

PICO BLVD — City officials are recommending the City Council cut off funding to a youth center less than a month after half of its board members resigned over differences with the executive director.

The board members’ departures as well as an unflattering report by an outside consultant raised red flags for City Hall, which felt the Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC) was falling apart, said Julie Rusk, assistant director of the Community & Cultural Services Department.

“That was a major signal that the organizational structure had collapsed,” Rusk said. “We fund organizations, so we look for organizational stability and strength.”

PYFC Executive Director and co-founder Oscar de la Torre, who took the brunt of the ex-board members’ criticism in their letters of resignation, blames the chaos on internal squabbles and a poorly-handled attempt to transition him out of his leadership role.

Ignored in the equation is the work that the center has done to address at-risk youth and gang violence, he said.

“The sum of our good is 100 times better than the sum of our faults,” de la Torre said.

Against the backdrop of the upheaval at the center, de la Torre has also filed a complaint against City Manager Rod Gould alleging character assassination and efforts to repress free speech.

The recommendation comes as the youth center reaches the end of a six-month “Last Chance Agreement” that the City Council approved in May 2012.

Officials in the Human Services Grant Program, which put $7.4 million into local nonprofits in 2011-12, raised concerns about PYFC’s organization and leadership, pointing to duplicate paychecks, excess payments into retirement accounts and an over-reliance on city funds rather than the center’s own fundraising.

The Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs organization, SEE, was brought on to act as a receiver for city funds directed to PYFC and to provide organizational support.

There was a sense of optimism through early October, bolstered by a $1.615 million gift from the estate of philanthropist Peggy Bergmann, the biggest in PYFC’s history, according to its leadership.

The board also felt that it had an agreement with de la Torre to take a consultant position and give up the executive director spot, said Amanda Seward, who served as board chair for three years until she resigned in December.

Board members had hoped that de la Torre would use the consultant position to facilitate a community process to determine the future of PYFC and at the same time go out for grants and other forms of funding, Seward said.

It would have solved what Seward saw as a chief problem in the organization, that de la Torre as both co-founder and executive director misconstrued his role in the nonprofit and his relationship with his board of directors.

“He thinks he’s the board. He didn’t understand we are his bosses, and we didn’t understand that. We gave him chance after chance and the facts are it isn’t being run right,” Seward said Thursday.

Although de la Torre confirmed to the Daily Press that he wanted to leave the executive director position, he said he had no desire to take the consultant job, which cut him out of the organization’s leadership and disagreed with what he perceived to be changes to the organization’s mission.

That offer fell apart at a closed meeting on Nov. 20 when de la Torre and a group of supporters protested outside. Eventually, a Change.org petition directed to Seward surfaced, ostensibly to support de la Torre as executive director and ensure that the PYFC mission statement included advocacy, peace, unity and justice.

Within three weeks of that meeting, the six board members resigned, leaving the organization with no board officers.

“I do believe that peace, unity and social justice applies to everyone, and I will not participate or support any person or organization which does not actively demonstrate this belief,” wrote Jan Book, former PYFC board treasurer in her letter of resignation.

Within two weeks of the Nov. 20 meeting, Sonya Sultan, one of the attorneys working on the Peggy Bergmann estate, “agreed to hold the $1.6 million check” that had been given to PYFC, according to an organizational assessment of PYFC written by Judy Spiegel, a consultant hired by SEE.

In an e-mail sent to de la Torre on Dec. 13, Sultan wrote, “… when we learned of the disarray, resignations and allegations of possible misconduct within the organization, we agreed, upon request, to hold the check pending clarification of the organization’s status and/or instructions from the attorney general or from the court.”

It’s unclear who made that request. Seward denies doing so.

Later that month, it came to light that the center had been closed for two days in late November, although de la Torre had been paid a full day’s work.

Spiegel, the consultant responsible for the organizational assessment, also asked to be taken off the PYFC assignment, saying that de la Torre and one board member had “communicated and shown a lack of respect and trust of my work.”

Allegations were made that Spiegel took the consulting position to direct the Bergmann funds to the YWCA Santa Monica/Westside, and that she wanted the role of executive director, according to her letter to SEE Executive Director Jennifer Hoffman.

That’s not the case, de la Torre said, although Spiegel’s role as the incoming president of the YWCA, which also received Bergmann funds, raised “a question of a conflict of interest.”

City officials identified other problems with the center that persisted through the six-month period, including a lack of documentation about the number of youth helped and services provided by the center.

It’s difficult to determine how effective a program is if there’s no evidence to back up the claims, Rusk said.

“It’s a little difficult to tell from the records and files what the outcomes have been,” she said.

If the City Council votes to cut the over $300,000 it gives to PYFC each year on Tuesday, there are concerns that the center will not have the cash to operate its space at 715 Pico Blvd.

Should that turn out to be the case, Rusk said, officials are prepared to step in to assume the lease and keep the doors of the center open to the youth that use it.

The City Council on Tuesday will not be discussing de la Torre’s complaint, which stems from three incidents, two in 2010 and one in May 2012.

de la Torre alleges in the complaint to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie that city officials prevented him from speaking in an August 2010 “Know Your Rights” panel discussion on the grounds that he was running for Board of Education at the time.

Also in 2010, de la Torre was investigated by the Santa Monica Police Department for child endangerment after he broke up a fight near Santa Monica High School. Ultimately no charges were filed and the Office of Independent Review was critical of the lead investigator.

That same officer was involved with de la Torre’s third incident, which occurred in City Council chambers this summer. He claims that he was questioned for his presence in the chambers after the City Council went into closed session and that the officer reported the information to the city manager and later made a threatening gesture toward de la Torre.

 

ashley@smdp.com