Pico Youth and Family Center's Tearful Supporters Speak Out as Santa Monica City Council Considers Defunding

The Santa Monica City Council chambers were packed to the gills Tuesday night. The meeting was so full that Santa Monica policemen were acting as bouncers, keeping at least a hundred additional individuals at bay in the City Hall lobby.

A large share of the attendees were supporters of the Pico Youth and Family Center, who showed up to voice their support for the organization, and urge members of the city council not to pull its funding.

More than one speaker broke down before the council. "I just don't want places like the PYFC to be extinct," a young man choked out through tears.

"This organization has done so much for families and deserves your support," another Santa Monica City College student said, before pausing to compose herself.

Those two, and a nearly a dozen others who spoke on behalf of the PYFC, were in luck though, because defunding the problem-plagued organization for at-risk teenagers wasn't on the table--yet.

Instead, after a series of PYFC employee missteps were chronicled in a report by Santa Monica's Human Services Division, the council was discussing a "last chance agreement" with a series of recommendations to help the organization shape up. If the conditions were not met by December, the report recommended that the city cease funding the program.

The City of Santa Monica provides $307,532 annually to the Pico Youth and Family Center, and according to the report, it has gone through four accounting firms in seven years--a fact that may have contributed to several financial problems uncovered by city staffers.

In August 2010, the report states, duplicate payroll checks were issued to both executive director Oscar De La Torre (who has been the subject of controversy in the past), and office manager Yolanda de Cordova. In November 2010, a second duplicate payroll check was issued to de Cordova. Both employees only paid the money back months later when the matter was brought to the attention of city officials.

City staffers also found that the PYFC overpaid employee retirement disbursements and pension payments to the tune of $28,000. Today, almost half of that money has been returned to the city, but nearly $13,000 is still outstanding.

Then there was an episode back in January when the center was shut down without notice. City staffers were told the center was closed for a staff retreat.

"Later it was discovered that in fact, there was no staff retreat," the report states. "Instead, three full-time employees had taken two youth participants to Arizona to participate in a coordinated protest against the banishment of the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican American Studies program."

The city's "last chance agreement" consists of two recommendations the organization must put into action before the year's end in order to keep funding. First, an independent organization needs to be brought in to oversee PYFC's finances, and second, PYFC should refocus its attention on at-risk teenagers (in recent years it had expanded to include younger participants, and to take on social justice and community organizing projects).

Councilman Bobby Shriver called the outpouring of community support for PYFC "incredibly moving," singling out testimonies earlier in the evening from a young man who described himself as "a little punk" pre-PYFC, and another who told the council he had no friends, and no ability to make any, before he arrived at PYFC.

The Pico Youth and Family Center was created in 1999, in reaction to a rash of gang-related shootings and deaths in Santa Monica. The program's targets were drop-outs, habitual offenders, parolees and probationers, ages 16-24. And, as evidenced by the droves of participants who showed up Tuesday to speak to its impact on their lives, by most measures, it has been an overwhelming success.

Chair of the PYFC board, Amanda Steward, might have summed the matter up best when she said, "The Pico Youth and Family Center, if it gets its act together, is worth saving."

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