I’ve covered an infinity of City Council meetings. They range from horrifying to dull beyond reason, but Tuesday night’s meeting hit a singularly strident note.
The Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) was founded by Oscar de la Torre about ten years ago. It offered a variety of programs – including a particularly popular music studio, a short film class. and an anti-gang campaign. It quickly became a kind of second home for young people who couldn’t find the understanding or attention they needed at home or at school. Many of them were Latino or black. Money was always a problem.
De la Torre was born and grew up in Santa Monica, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he not only graduated from high school and college, he did graduate work and founded PYFC. In addition to managing the Center, he is currently serving his second term as a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu United School District board of education
Since its founding, PYFC has received regular grants from the City, but the relationship has been difficult. City staff has complained about De La Torre’s alleged inability or unwillingness to manage the money meticulously, file the appropriate reports on time and so on. The City agreed .to give the Center $190,000 last year, but warned that, unless his management improved, PYFC would not receive a grant in 2015-2016.
Tuesday night, the Council could make the final call: authorize the $190.000 payment or deny it.
We don’t know whether the City was ODing on bureaucracy, as it some-times does, or new City staff members found De la Torre’s demeanor unacceptable, or the City wanted to take control of the Center, which was disorganized, but, from the beginning, had always had great promise.
What we do know is that in May and again Tuesday night, dozens of young people attended the City Council meetings to praise PYFC, report on what it had done for them and ask the Council to pay another $190,000 grant.
When all the speakers had spoken, the Council was scheduled to make decisions about specific grants and the budget as a whole.
But madness ensued.
Mayor Kevin McKeown, who works as a consultant for the School District, reported that that morning, De la Torre called the School District and asked a District employee about the terms of the mayor’s employment, and so on. Mckeown didn’t actually know what was on Oscar’s mind, but he decided to recuse himself from the vote and left the Council Chambers in a dead run.
Things got stranger and stranger,
Council members Gleam Davis. and. Pam O’Connor sit at opposite ends of the of the dais, and Tuesday night, both women had replaced their usual con-ventional outfits for gaudy tropical dresses with lots with lots and lots of beads. It was too bizarre to be accidental. But the Council chambers are always cool to cold, so Davis spent much of the meeting wrapped in what appeared to be a blanket. .
In an effort to restore reason, Himmelrich proposed that the Council approve payment of the $190,000 grant.
Himmelrich said, “I’ve been to their events, They clearly reach a lot of people. I heard from people who attended the Olympic High School graduation ceremony that of the three speakers, two of them mentioned PYFC and the ways the program helped them. I think that having the programs at the schools and having the programs at Virginia Avenue Park and having the programs in more institutional settings may work for a lot of people but it may not work for the kids who are dropping out. The kid you heard from tonight is graduating from high school at age 25. There are other lost people in our community.”
Mayor Pro Tem Tony Vazquez agreed with her. But the other Council members didn’t.
Council member Ted Winterer said the Council hadn’t seen applications for grants that Oscar had talked about and he was tired of hearing the same story year in and year out about changes, but never seeing any real changes.
The other Council members agreed, noting that City officials have long complained about PYFC’s poor bookkeeping, which De la Torre and some of the other speakers denied or dismissed.
Several supporters of the PYFC cried during their public testimony, while other speakers explained the ways in which the organization saved their lives.
Some spoke of a breakdown in communication between city officials and the organization.Others spoke — sometimes calmly and sometimes angrily — about City Hall’s alleged hostility to the Center and De La Torre.
“I hope that it’s not so irreparably harmed that the people in our Community Services Department can’t find a way in their hearts to let PYFC back in should PYFC demonstrate that they can do this in a way that is fiscally responsible and less politicized,” Himmelrich said.
None of the Council members except Vazquez agreed with her, though Davis suggested making a $50,000 grant to help students enrolled in PYFC programs to move into City programs.
The Council then turned its attention to the appointment of three Planning Commissioners.. Council member Pam O’Connor insisted that they should only appoint two, as she hadn’t had time to examine all the candidates’ applications and make recommendations for the three openings.
Himmelrich noted that, in fact, they’d all had plenty of time as almost all the applications had been submitted by March, as O’Connor prepared rather melodramatically to walk out. But, as usual, she got her way, and the Council members agreed it would only name two of the three commissioners that night. .
Any semblance of fair play or rational thought was going slowly down the drain and into the dumper.
O’Connor’s righteous indignation was especially piquant as the Santa Monica Transparency Project has filed 31 complaints about her alleged acceptance of campaign contributions from developers who bought her approval of their projects.
The Council’s selection of new Commissioners was thoroughly disheartening. The Council majority chose Jason Perry, seeking a third term, whose most impressive accomplishment as Chair of the Commission was his perfect attendance. The Council majority then chose Nina Fresco, a longtime member of the Landmarks Commission, and a leader in the mystery Civic Center project, to replace Jim Reise, the most experienced Commissioner. The third seat was left unfilled – under orders from O’Connor. It had been briefly occupied by Carter Rubin, who was appointed to fill the seat left empty by Himmelrich’s election to the City Council, But, on the very heels of his appointment, he announced his resignation.
During his brief stay, he was mildly pompous, perhaps because he works in the office of L/A. mayor Eric Garcetti.
Himmelrich voted for longtime Santa Monica architect Mario Fonda-Bonardi who has written some illuminating articles for SM*a*r*t Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow.
All in all, it wasn’t a good night for Santa Monica, PYFC, de la Torre, the mayor, Himmelrich, Vazquez and all the residents who don’t believe that this gloriously idiosyncratic beach town is a game..