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De la Torre Refuses to Give Up School Board Seat

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By Jorge Casuso

December 18, 2020 -- The week after being sworn in as a City Councilmember, Oscar de la Torre threw a wrench into Thursday night's School Board meeting when he refused to relinquish his seat.

De la Torre -- who has served 18 years on the seven-member Board -- tried to participate in the proceedings, prompting officials to mute his microphone and forcing the board to go into an unscheduled closed session.

The newly elected Councilmember said he would only step down if he is forced to do so by a court, which he acknowledges would likely happen.

De la Torre also said he would step down if the Board replaces him with Jonathan Feldman, the distant runner up in the November 3 race for three open seats, or if it embraces social justice policies he has long championed.

They include making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, closing the achievement gap and conducting a study on diversity in District hiring.

"Unfortunately, this board has ignored my suggestions repeatedly to remedy social injustice, and last night was one more example of that marginalization," de la Torre told The Lookout.

"Our school board continues to ignore the pleas of parents and students of color who, year after year, offer their ideas to remedy institutional racism," he said, noting that four of the six Santa Monica Board members live in the exclusive North of Montana neighborhood.

In a statement issued Friday, School Board President Jon Kean denounced de la Torre's actions.

"Mr. de la Torre brought the divisiveness of DC to Santa Monica last night and made a meeting intended to address the educational futures of 10,000 students all about himself and his ego," Kean said.

Kevin Shenkman, an attorney who sued the District for allegedly violating a student's right to a free education, said it is illegal for the board not to allow de la Torre to participate as a member.

"Until a court determines that Oscar cannot serve, he is a board member," said Shenkman, who represents de la Torre's wife Maria Loya in a voting rights lawsuit against the City.

"They seem to think that they can declare by edict who can serve and not serve on the Board," Shenkman said. "You can't just say, 'I rule.'"

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Ben Drati said the District "provided (de la Torre) with the legal opinion that an elected official cannot hold two incompatible offices."

A clear conflict exists, Drati said, because the Council and the district share the same geographic territory and have entered into several contracts.

"On behalf of the staff and students in SMMUSD, I find this entire situation terribly unfortunate," the Superintendent wrote.

"We now must allocate resources, including time and money, pursuing relief from a court instead of using that time and money to serve the needs of our students."

A similar potential conflict was raised two years ago after Councilmember Tony Vazquez was elected to the state Board of Equalization in November 2018.

Speculation that he would seek to continue serving on the Council prompted then City Attorney Lane Dilg to seek an opinion from the California Attorney General whether the two offices are “incompatible” as a matter of law. The AG opined that they were.

Gov. Code Section 1099 codifies the common law prohibition against the holding of “incompatible offices” and "restricts the ability of public officials to hold two different public offices simultaneously if the offices have overlapping and conflicting public duties.

"The consequence of holding an incompatible office is that the person is 'deemed to have forfeited the first office upon acceding to the second,'" according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) ("Can Vazquez Keep Seat if Elected to State Office? The Answer is Not So Simple," July 24, 2018).

Unlike de la Torre, Vazquez chose to step down from his old post.

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