The dealings of the city government and the local school district overlap on a regular basis.
Teachers often request grant money from the City of Santa Monica for special trips, scholarships and other enrichment activities. The City and the school district have standing agreements for land use, such as an easement that will allow city officials to operate a water harvesting and filtration system on district-owned land adjacent to an elementary school.
But the many intersections also create tension, conflict and, most recently, dueling accusations of misconduct.
Santa Monica-Malibu school board member Oscar de la Torre last month recused himself from a vote on a district consent calendar that included a payment to Mayor Kevin McKeown, who works as a technology consultant for SMMUSD.
The recusal came a day after City Council stripped funding from the embattled nonprofit Pico Youth and Family Center, of which de la Torre is executive director.
“The Pico Youth and Family Center lost all public funding,” de la Torre said, “and before that vote took place, the mayor … accused me of attempting to implement a quid pro quo or threats or bullying. … I will be recusing myself and not be present so that there’s no further allegations of any type of impropriety or any of that.”
Council’s decision was made without the participation of McKeown, who explained that he would be recusing himself following a chain of events that is now disputed.
According to de la Torre’s account, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta agreed to call the mayor the day of the council meeting to urge him to vote to fund the PYFC but could not get in touch with him because she only had his home phone number.
De la Torre said he called Supt. Sandra Lyon’s office in an attempt to track down another number for the mayor and that he was referred to an employee in another office.
“I asked if he worked at a certain site, (the employee) told me that he worked at multiple sites and then she began to tell me about the merits of him working and how it’s a benefit to the school district,” de la Torre said. “I never asked those questions. I didn’t ask about his contract at all. I never mentioned the word ‘contract’ in my conversation with her and also never talked about his work performance or never even said anything negatively about Kevin and his work.”
McKeown told a different story, saying he learned that the conversation between his district supervisor and de la Torre included “certain specific questions” about his work for SMMUSD.
“Such a call, if meant to reach me as Mayor on a City issue, might more reasonably have gone through City Hall than through a school district department head who works for Oscar as a school board member,” McKeown said.
After learning about the phone call, McKeown said, he had no choice but to decline involvement in City Council’s discussion of PYFC funding. He said he recused himself to avoid what some might have considered a quid pro quo vote.
“If I had voted for the funding, a reasonable person might have concluded I acted out of concern for my own job (as a district consultant),” he said. “If I voted against funding, a reasonable person might have concluded I was upset about the phone call and reacted in retaliation. That left me in a ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ situation. As an elected official whose Council votes should never be perceived as determined by personal financial interests, there was no way I could participate in the PYFC vote.”
McKeown said he has been a longtime supporter of de la Torre’s nonprofit, noting that he fought to find funding to create the organization and that he received its Hope and Unity award in 2008.
But city officials have long alleged poor bookkeeping at the PYFC and have cautioned in recent years that continued funding would require improved accounting.
“It’s unfortunate that PYFC’s problems with meeting standard, objective guidelines for the ongoing allocation of public taxpayer dollars are being masked by allegations of personal attacks and racism,” McKeown said.
Before the school board’s vote on the consent calendar, de la Torre said he was offended by the mayor’s comments at City Hall a day earlier.
“I take this allegation as very serious,” he said. “I would never use my position to threaten anyone, number one, but most importantly any elected official to vote a certain way because I can leverage my role … as a school board member.”
The school district paid McKeown $65 per hour for an annual total not to exceed $50,000, according to McKeown’s contract for 2014-15, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily Press. He is certified to provide tech support on Apple computers, according to the contract.
The district’s June 24 consent calendar, which included a payment of $19,748 to McKeown, was approved with a 6-0 vote.
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.