SM COURTHOUSE — The embattled Pico Youth & Family Center is still in dire financial straits with both of its major sources of funding tied up in red tape.
Although the City Council voted in December to continue funding the center through June 30, paperwork problems have left the center without a contract with City Hall and no funds to pay rent or payroll.
At the same time a $1.6 million check bequeathed to the Santa Monica-based center by philanthropist Peggy Bergmann is tied up in the courts as attorneys seek guidance given recent upheaval within the organization that led to the departure of half of its board of directors and threats to its relationship with City Hall.
Without cash flow from either source, however, the center is having difficulty keeping its doors open, much less paying for the help that it needs to get its administrative house in order, said Executive Director Oscar de la Torre.
“People are taking our money and then blaming us for being poor,” de la Torre said.
The Pico Youth & Family Center and de la Torre came under fire in 2012 when a staff report highlighting financial management and reporting issues led the City Council to approve a six-month “last chance agreement.”
City officials hired Social & Environmental Entrepreneurs, a consulting firm, to provide fiscal oversight to the center and brought in an outside consultant to work with the leadership on administrative problems.
By December, however, internal disagreements at the center blew up. Half of the board left, and City Hall posted letters of resignation detailing the former board members’ concerns with the sustainability of the organization under de la Torre’s leadership.
de la Torre said the outside consultant and members of the board were trying to rid the organization of one of its key missions, which is to teach youth how to advocate for their communities so that they can secure funding or other resources that are desperately needed.
The City Council gave the organization another six months to prepare itself to compete for its old contract, and de la Torre committed to resigning as executive director at the end of March.
Things have not gone smoothly since.
City Hall needs a program plan complete with objectives and methods to measure the effectiveness of services offered at the center, as well as a budget and documents from the prior six months before a contract can be finalized, said Setareh Yavari, acting human services manager with City Hall.
“They need to provide outcomes, set targets for meeting those outcomes based on their population and how many people they know they serve,” Yavari said.
The center has gone through the process every year for the past decade that it has received funding from City Hall, she said.
de la Torre contends that city officials are being excessively picky when it comes to language included in the program plan, and that they are adding new reporting requirements.
“They’re setting us up for failure,” he said.
Check not in the mail
Matters at the probate court did not improve the situation.
Sonya Sultan, the attorney representing Bergmann’s estate, petitioned the court to allow her to put the $1.6 million check in an account so that it could accrue interest as she waits for guidance from the State Attorney General’s Office and courts on how to move forward.
The circumstances are unusual, Sultan said, because the check was returned to her by the center’s former board chair undeposited and uncashed immediately before reports of disarray within the Pico Youth & Family Center were made public.
“Once the check was returned to us under those conditions and with what we heard was going on, our only choice was to go to court and get instructions from the attorney general and the court,” Sultan said.
She and her partner, Bruce Sultan, told Bergmann about the Pico Youth & Family Center when the Pacific Palisades resident was preparing her will.
“We were always very supportive of the work of the center,” Sultan said. “It’s vital, vital work. They’re going to pick up the pieces and carry on with the work, or another organization will do it because it’s so important to the community. These youth deserve to be served.”
Two of the center’s clients, Krystal Jasmin and Marcos Santana, came to court with de la Torre to represent their peers.
“I believe in the cause and I have love for the cause,” Jasmin said. “It’s necessary.”