First 5 LA Disbands Northeast Valley Advocacy Group Amid Allegations of Harassment and Intimidation

 Community activists are accusing First 5 LA  —  a nonprofit that funds healthy programs for children 0 to 5, and their families — of corruption, after the agency disbanded the Northeast Valley Best Start Community Partnership Guidance Body. But the agency alleges the volunteer group has tried to intimidate and harass those working for First 5LA at various events.

Things apparently began to sour last year when Maria Aquino, the First 5 LA staff member in charge of the local Partnership Guidance Body, was removed and replaced by Joaquin Macias.

“She’s been here for years. She’s community-friendly and a real advocate for the community,” said Gwendolyn Posey of Aquino.

Posey was a member of the Guidance Body, comprised of 10 others, including Rev. Arthur Broadous, Rev. Dennis Ware, Maria Jimenez, Eliza Venzor, Dr. Sergio Vasquez, Odilia Jara, Alicia Martinez, Renato Lira, Ismael Maldonado and Rosa Berrelleza. All were volunteers and received no compensation.

Posey said Macias came in with a “negative attitude” and soon there were clashes.

“It’s been hell. His intent was to run the vocal ones, like myself, out,” Posey said, accusing Macias of going after individuals who disagreed with him.

Those disagreements, she said, were due in part to questions regarding the  funding First 5 LA was supposed to deliver to the 14 partnerships distributed across the Los Angeles County that instead ended up in the agency’s general fund.

The constant infighting led to mediation to try to resolve the issues, but even that was not successful.

Harassment and Intimidation

Last month Kim Belshe, First 5 LA executive director, convened a meeting at Pacoima City Hall and she spoke of “increasing concern” about the Guidance Body.

Belshe noted “numerous reports of bullying, intimidation and harassment” from members of the Northeast Valley Best Start Partnership, including employees of First 5 LA being “verbally attacked regarding the chosen caterer for a meeting, multiple reports of obstruction of meetings and assaults.”

“Guidance Body members have been rude and abusive in the treatment of volunteers participating in the Summer Fest,” Belshe said at the meeting.

She said that some volunteers were threatened with being reported to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). There were instances of sexual harassment and other issues.

Belshe added that “parents and community members said they stopped participating in Partnership meetings because of a lack of respect, hostility and intimidation.”

An independent group hired by First 5LA provided corroboration. It concluded that “volunteers feel bullied, threatened and ostracized and treated abusively by the close leadership of 4-6 individuals,” Belshe said, adding her staff was worried that “physical altercations might occur,”

“There is no room for threats, hostility or harassment in the work that we’re doing,” Belshe said in the meeting. “We can no longer place our employees in a situation where they face harassment, threats and inappropriate behavior.”

Because of all these problems, Belshe said, “First 5 LA resources will no longer be used to support or convene Northeast Valley Community Partnership Guidance Body meetings, partnership meetings or other subcommittees as we can’t be assured that they will be conducted in a way that is consistent with Northeast Valley Government guidelines and meeting agreement.”

Belshe did say the agency would continue to support the work of the organization Los Angeles Universal Pre-School, which provides training to parents, advocacy and other programs locally. It would also continue to provide sponsorship funds to community events such as LAPD Fitness Run, Neighborhood Action Councils and Summer Fest.

Disgrace and Disrespect

The news was not well received by Guidance Body members, who have held protests at David Gonzales Park in Pacoima where the group used to meet. They  accuse First 5 LA of corruption and disrespecting the community.

They have even created a Facebook page titled “Stop First 5 LA Corruption,” where they posted several videos of the latest developments in this saga. In one of these videos, Maria Jimenez, a Guidance Body member, said that “the way First 5 LA did things” was not the appropriate way to do things.

“We have asked for training. Why not train us in what we were doing wrong?” she asked. “Why not collaborate and work together for the benefit of the community?”

Posey denied any wrongdoing on the part of the members of the Guidance Body. “The community loves what we do. There are no problems, no animosity,” she said.

She adds that if there are accusations against them, “let us know who the accusers are.”

There may not yet be any public finger-pointing, but several people contacted by the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol spoke to issues of bullying and harassment from Guidance Body members against volunteers who were to participate in the Summer Fest — a large event held at El Cariso Park earlier this year — to the point that many volunteers simply decided not to help.

Several people who were present during a rally organized last year by charter schools in Pacoima also say they heard Posey questioning why CCSA (California Charter School Association, which organized that rally) was relying on people who couldn’t vote, in reference to the immigration status of parents of children who attend those schools.

People with knowledge of the situation also said that Renato Lira, another of the Guidance Body members, was harassing current LAUSD Board Member Kelly Gomez, calling her at all hours of the day and making all kinds of accusations against her when Posey was running against her for the same seat. Lira supported Posey’s candidacy.

Others denounced the claim Best Start’s funds went to a local church instead of local programs for children.

Still, these are allegations. The fact remains  — for now — that the Guidance Body is disbanded, which Posey calls “a disgrace and a disrespect.”

“Seven years of work, making them look good and all of that went down the drain,” she said before listing a number of demands for First 5 LA, including: reinstatement, a clear accounting of funds, some recourse as to Joaquin Macias and his “hostility and anger,” and a formal apology.