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Santa Monica Youth Center Denied Grant after Final Plea for Funding

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writers

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that the City Council voted Tuesday to provide the Pico Youth and Family Center with up to $50,000 from the Council's discretionary fund. In fact, the Council voted to use the discretionary funding to provide transitional programs for students who may be currently served by the center.

June 24, 2015 -- Waving signs and chanting “Si Se Puede,” more than 200 boisterous supporters of the beleaguered Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) marched to Santa Monica City Hall on Tuesday to protest a cut in City funding.

Dozens of PYFC supporters also spoke at a public hearing, asking the City Council to reverse a staff recommendation and grant the center’s request for $190,000 from the City’s Human Services Grant Program (HSGP).

In the end, however, Council members late Tuesday decided unanimously to stick with staff’s recommendation and deny the request by the center, which has largely relied on City funding for more than a decade.

Instead the Council unanimously voted to approve a motion by Council member Gleam Davis to authorize staff to spend up to $50,000 in discretionary funds to provide transitional programs for students who may be currently served by the center.

“It’s unfortunate that PYFC wasn’t able to meet the criteria” for the grant, said Councilman Terry O’Day.

The vote came after Mayor Kevin McKeown, who works as a consultant for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, recused himself, citing a possible conflict of interest. PYFC founder and President Oscar de la Torre is a SMMUSD School Board member.

McKeown said his employer informed him earlier Tuesday of a phone call de La Torre made inquiring about McKeown’s consulting contract. He said the call “puts me in a difficult situation.”

“To avoid any appearance of my having been influenced by that call this morning, I’m going to recuse myself from this part of the meeting,” said McKeown before leaving the Council chambers.

McKeown’s comments appeared to influence other Council members. Before they approved Davis’ motion, Council members voted down a motion by Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich to provide PYFC with $190,000 in discretionary funding.

During the vote on Himmelrich’s motion, Mayor Pro Tem Tony Vazquez had to call for order several times after outbursts from the audience.

Before the meeting, PYFC supporters took over the bottom floor of City Hall and staged a loud 20-minute protest, shouting, “Who’s Center? Our Center!” and “What Do We Want? Justice!”

“The people in here have organized money. What keeps them in power is money,” de la Torre told the cheering crowd. “It cost $350,000 these days to win a seat on the City Council. That’s almost as much as our budget for the entire year.”

Without the grant help from the City, deep cuts will likely be next at PYFC, said de la Torre.

“If we end up with zero out of today’s meeting, if we get no funding from the City, then we immediately have to start downsizing,” said de la Torre.

“The first thing we’d have to do is cut down on the space, because we’re spending about $80,000 a year just on rent. And then the second most-expensive thing is staff salary, so we’re going to have to release staff.”

Twenty-four agencies submitted HSCP proposals for various projects, but only 22 were selected by staff for approval. If approved by the Council on Tuesday as part of the City’s annual budget, the program will distribute about $8.1 million among the 22 agencies.

Some of the larger grant winners include homeless services agency OPCC, which applied for $862,863, and Chrysalis, another homeless services provider, which applied for $286,857.

De la Torre lamented that those and other older organizations in Santa Monica regularly apply for and receive full funding through the HSCP.

“For us, it’s always been a struggle,” he said. “We’re in a very wealthy city, and our social capital is limited.”

Started by Pico neighborhood residents in 1998 as a response to gang shootings in the area, PYFC originally was granted more than $350,000 by the City, but its funding was cut by $90,000 in 2013. Last year, Council members approved a one-time bailout of $190,000.

But this year, a report by human services manager Setareh Yavari, said the City already has spent $4 million in various ways in support of the struggling center. Yavari said staff had “long-standing concerns” about the center's operation, financial management and effectiveness.

The Pico center has shifted its focus since first receiving grant money in 2000 by undertaking “social justice and community organizing that have diverted program focus and resources away from the original intent of City funding,” said a 2013 staff report.

De la Torre said Tuesday the City’s move to de-fund the PYFC “has nothing to do with money” and more to do with City officials being at odds with the PYFC’s progressive political stance.

“If we’re a progressive City, then we want to support organizations like PYFC,” he said. “We’re not doing anything illegal. Advocacy is not against the law.”

De la Torre said center officials will launch an intense fundraising drive to make up whatever the City will not provide in funding.

“We have to raise funds, there’s no other way,” he said. “We have a fundraising plan involving doing fundraising events, writing grants and using some online strategies to raise money as well. We need to get better at that.”

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