Did Santa Ana City Council Approve an Arts Grant With a Conflict of Interest?

Victor Payan and Pocha. Photo from Sarmiento’s campaign website

Media Arts Santa Ana’s annual OC Film Fiesta wrapped up in late October with a preview of another festival to come. The Bill Medley Auditorium at Santa Ana High School played host to “The Best of Philip K. Dick,” a series of short films based on the late science fiction author’s prolific works. Dick, having been a longtime Santa Ana resident, will be the focus of a film festival in his honor next year.

The planned hometown hero tribute, as well as the short film series warm up, proved central to MASA’s proposal for the Investing in the Artist Grant, one the city council approved on July 17 to several artists and arts organizations. But local artists have cried foul over the jury panel process, accusing arts commissioner Sandra Peña Sarmiento, better know as “Pocha” and who co-founded MASA with her husband Victor Payan, of improprieties with regards to how the organization was ultimately graded and awarded a $6,690 grant.

“There’s definitely a conflict of interest,” says Alicia Rojas, an artist from Huntington Beach who co-founded the Santa Ana Community Artist/a Coalition and complained to the city about one panelist in particular she alleges has a close relationship with Pocha. “The city just doesn’t want to deal with it.”

This year, several artists and arts organizations applied for $70,000 in total grant money. They submitted proposals that a five-member jury panel then graded. The arts commission took the grading and made recommendations to city council who had final authority to award the money. “The first year that we did the grants and the commissioners served as panelists, I had to recuse myself from a third of the applications,” says Pocha. “Every year, we’ve been making improvements to our panel and selection process.”

With that in mind, grant graders from outside Santa Ana were sought to avoid past issues. Sarah Rafael Garcia, an author and artist in residence at Grand Central Arts Center, asked Pocha about being a panelist over social media when the commissioner told her the inquiry came too late. When Garcia followed with interest about next year’s panel, Pocha noted the preference for outside candidates given the small world of local arts circles. The panelists ended up including Angela Gaspar-Milanovic, Linda Trinh Vo, Luisa Cariaga, Suzanne Alicia Walsh and Ricardo Duffy.

Rojas rails against MASA’s grant. Photo by John Gilhooley

“Staff selected the panelists,” wrote Tram Le, arts and culture specialist for the city, in an email response to Rojas. “Commissioners were not part of the selection process; however, they submitted recommendations for potential panelists for staff to reach out and send the application to.” Le also assured Rojas that no commissioners aired any objections to the list of five people who applied for the five seats. “There is a process in place whereby if a panelist has a conflict of interest, they recuse themselves from commenting and scoring the particular application,” Le added. “We took great care in preventing a breach of conflict of interests with broth the review panel and the commission.”

The Weekly submitted its own questions on Tuesday but hasn’t received a response from the city as of press time.

“Ricardo Duffy should have been excluded from grading Media Arts Santa Ana as he is a long time friend of Sandra and Victor,” Rojas wrote Le. The artist points to a years-old feud over a city-owned wall at Plaza Santa Ana in downtown that remains barren. Rojas claims Pocha pushed for Duffy to become the lead artist for the mural project that fell apart.

“I have a professional relationship with Duffy that is based on work,” Pocha acknowledges. “I haven’t worked on a project with Duffy that paid anything in probably 12 or 13 years.” She points to other arts commissions having guidelines for paid work to balance networking in the arts industry with potential conflicts of interest, one that more than a decade’s worth of distance should suffice in principle. How Duffy graded MASA’s grant application or if any commissioner recommended him isn’t readily available, but the organization placed third overall with a 92.2 score out of 100. Pocha did recuse herself from the commission’s July 2 vote on the grant recommendations.

But when Pocha pulled papers to run for city council in Ward 2 this summer, Rojas saw another point to pounce on. To bolster her ballot designation as a teacher and arts commissioner, Pocha listed MASA as an employer in support of the former. “That’s a direct conflict of interest if you ask me about it,” Rojas says in relation to the grant. According to the filing, Pocha taught OC Cinema Camp at Delhi Center from June 27, 2017 – August 17, 2017. “I’m a self-employed teaching artist,” she says. “I was contracted by MASA for a summer program last year. Because of the filing, it requires you to put the last client you’ve received money for within that 12-month calendar year. ”

Pocha acknowledges she’s a co-founder of MASA, but says she isn’t on the board nor is she a current employee. Other artists, including Garcia, claimed a conflict of interest wasn’t prevented in letters sent to city staff. Rojas believes another Sarmiento should’ve stepped aside from voting on the grants.  During the July 17 city council meeting, she stated that councilman Vicente Sarmiento, Pocha’s cousin, needed to recuse himself to no avail.

If Pocha wins a city council seat, she’d have to immediately vacate her arts commission position. If Pocha loses, she’s termed out by the end of the year anyway.

Those are the only ways Pocha would leave her post as she defends the integrity of the entire grant process against naysayers. “It was something that was thoroughly examined and looked into,” Pocha says. “Everything was found to be in accordance, and with me, exceeding any minimum guidelines.”

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