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The Buck Paused There


By Frank Gruber

February 28, 2011 --It is one of those rituals of our civic religion: something goes wrong, and someone who is not responsible for the problem takes responsibility for it, and everyone feels much better. That is what happened at the Santa Monica City Council meeting last week, when City Manager Rod Gould took responsibility for the Santa Monica Police Department’s seriously flawed investigation of School Board Member Oscar de la Torre, even though Mr. Gould could hardly have had anything to do with it. (See story of February 24, 2011,“Santa Monica City Council considers de la Torre Investigation Report”.)

It’s a useful ritual, but the important part of Mr. Gould’s effective and affecting statement was his promise to return to the Council with a report in 90 days on the progress of the department’s implementation of the seven recommendations made by the OIR Group in its investigation of the investigation.

To their credit, all of the six council members who were present at the meeting (Pam O’Connor was out sick) responded appropriately to Mr. Gould’s statement, within the limitations placed on them by the City Charter. They accepted his assurances that such conduct would not happen again, but all expressed unhappiness with how the police had treated Mr. de la Torre. They deferred everything else until receiving Mr. Gould’s report in 90 days.

Mr. de la Torre and his wife Maria Loya also responded with eloquence and grace. They added important elements to the OIR Group’s report, which focused only on the actions of the police; they gave accounts of the consequences of that conduct. Ms. Loya spoke of her anxieties about what would happen if the police arrested Mr. de la Torre; Mr. de la Torre drew the obvious conclusion that the investigation was an attack on his career.

Councilmember Bobby Shriver put these comments in nice perspective, pointing out that while it might seem funny to “us” that Ms. Loya was up at night worrying about how she would make bail for her husband, her anxieties were just the kind any spouse of a suspect would have, especially one who would be home alone with two small children if her husband were in jail.

There was also the account, given to the council by the office manager at the Pico Youth and Family Center, the organization Mr. de la Torre runs, about how over-the-top the police were when they exercised the search warrant they had obtained purportedly to find evidence would show that Mr. de la Torre had an “in loco parentis” role over one of the young men who was involved in the fight that was the incident that triggered the whole investigation.

The office manager recounted that to conduct this simple search of the center’s files, the police sent five plainclothes officers, who searched Mr. de la Torre’s and her personal belongings, where they would not likely find any documents relating to the young man. None of this was in the OIR Group’s report, but it would all be evidence at trial if Mr. de la Torre sues the City.

Which seems to be the question of the moment: Will Oscar sue?

I have no idea if he will, and to a degree I hope he does not, because I suspect that suing the City would ultimately hurt him politically.

If he does sue, however, he has good grounds to do so. I say this not because I am an expert on this kind of law (I’m not), but because of precedents the City of Santa Monica has itself set with respect to settling lawsuits involving the police.

There have been several settlements of cases alleging police bad conduct, but the one that comes most vividly to mind is the one involving former police captain Mark Smiley, who sued the City in July 2008 for $10 million alleging he had been the target of a smear campaign from within the police department. (See story of July 18, 2008, “Police Captain Files $10 Million Suit”.)

Mr. Smiley, a 26-year veteran of the force, charged that Police Chief Tim Jackman and then Deputy Chief Phil Sanchez had falsely accused him of overstating the number of hours he worked, allegedly because he had blown the whistle on improper conduct by Mr. Sanchez (who is now the police chief in Pasadena).

The City settled with Mr. Smiley in December 2008 -- only six months after the case was filed -- for $500,000.

Think about that -- one police officer accuses two police officers of insulting him, and the City pays out half a million just six months after the case is filed. No disrespect to Mr. Smiley or his case, the facts of which must have been bad for the City given the settlement, but how do you compare that to a prominent member of the community who is dragged through the mud for months on one cop’s bizarre notions about “mindset” and strange ideas that someone sitting in his office could have “care and control” over a kid fighting in an alley?

It seems to me that the City might offer to pay for Mr. de la Torre’s legal fees, and hope for the best.

* * *

A lot of people are talking about the memorandum that Superintendent of Schools Tim Cuneo sent to the members of the School Board warning them that special education activist Tricia Crane would try to influence City Council Member Bobby Shriver to put strings on the money the School District will be receiving from the City’s new sales tax. (See story of February 22, 2011, “Superintendent Anticipates Trouble from Special Education Parents” ).

What strikes me as most interesting about the memo is that if Mr. Cuneo had not pointed his finger specifically at Ms. Crane and Mr. Shriver, no one could reasonably find the memo objectionable.

Mr. Cuneo was confronted with a situation where three members of a district task force charged with coming up with a new special education plan had resigned, and were likely to argue, in one forum or another, against the eventual plan. His memo to the board gave the board members the district staff’s chronology and account of the relevant events, in an attempt to show that the three activists had not been ignored or excluded from the process, so that the board members would not be unprepared if anyone asked them about what had happened.

This seems to be what any superintendent should do in this circumstance. However, it is difficult to understand why Mr. Cuneo would go further than that, and vent about Ms. Crane and Mr. Shriver. There is no such thing as a confidential memo.

* * *

But here’s something to think about next time you hear someone over at the City complaining about how the School Board manages the school district: what would the reaction be if the School Board had approved a $500,000 settlement to a high-level administrator who sued the district, alleging that another high-level administrator had smeared him?

* * *

This coming Saturday night you can support the schools, specifically the fantastic arts programs in our schools, the most fun way possible, by attending the annual For the Arts benefit concert. This year’s concert will feature America, Richard Page from Mr. Mister, (the beloved) Venice, and a Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame special guest. It’s always a blast. To see if tickets are still available, click here. http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/154799.


Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on amazon.com.


If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at mail@surfsantamonica.com .


If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email frank@frankjgruber.net The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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