Questions remain as Vergne investigation nears its end

The long-stewing controversy over Del Mar’s embattled chief lifeguard is coming to a close after more than four months that stoked outrage and demands for his reinstatement — but it remains unclear whether its root causes will ever see the light of day.

Patrick Vergne, head lifeguard and director of community services, was suspended this spring after two employees in his department filed a pair of complaints against him. The city hired special counsel to lead an investigation that involved testimony from 20 witnesses and hundreds of documents. Another employee in the community services department — administrative assistant Liza Rogers — was also suspended as part of the investigation.

As the probe dragged into July, Vergne filed a counter-complaint against City Manager Scott Huth that required separate investigation and compelled the city council to hire its own outside counsel.

Both investigations were completed by July 31, and executive summaries will be given at the end of this week to the city council and relevant city staff, according to City Attorney Leslie Devaney. She made the announcement after the council met in closed session prior to its regular meeting on Monday, Aug. 7.

But because of privacy restrictions, the city does not yet know which aspects of the investigation will be made public.

“Once those reports are delivered to the appropriate persons, an analysis will be made about how and what information can be given to the public and what cannot be,” Devaney said. “Since this is basically a personnel decision … there won’t probably be a lot that can be determined. But there will be a lot that otherwise can be provided about the process, etcetera. We are making that determination and giving the recommendations in order to protect the city and all those involved.”

As of Tuesday night, Aug. 8. Vergne’s attorney — Del Mar resident Dan Crabtree — said he had heard no indication of the city’s findings and was troubled to see that the investigation into Vergne took more than four months while the one against Huth took three weeks.

“That’s pretty bizarre, when you think about it,” he said. “And the amount of money Del Mar has spent on this, especially on the first investigation, is absolutely beyond belief.”

Huth announced in July that attorney fees for the first investigation totaled around $30,000.

“I’ve got to believe that it’s significantly more than that when you add in the fact that there are two employees who were getting paid all this time — 18 or 19 weeks, and they’re still getting paid — and the city had to hire replacements to handle some of their workload,” Crabtree said. “When you add all of the stuff in, I’m sure this has cost the city way over $120,000.”

Crabtree said he didn’t know if he’ll be shown the city’s findings or if Vergne will be allowed to return to work.

“They’ve kept everything such a secret up to this point. The city has played hide-the-ball since day one in everything, so nothing would surprise me,” he said. “Pat’s fondest desire is to go back to work. That’s the No. 1 thing on his mind; he wants to go back to work and put all of this behind him,” he said. “He loves Del Mar and the people of Del Mar. He just wants to get back to work and do the job that he’s extremely good at.”

Throughout the summer, supporters of Vergne — who has worked for the city for about 40 years —pleaded for his return and worried whether Vergne’s absence posed a threat to safety on the beach.

In one harrowing case described to the council in detail on Monday night, a woman had to be rescued from the water by other beachgoers on July 19 after they were unable to find lifeguards to help with the struggling swimmer. The city has launched an investigation into the incident.

Robin Crabtree, a vocal Vergne supporter and wife of the attorney representing him, pointed to the incident as evidence that the lifeguard department needs its leader back.

“Pretty scary stuff,” she told the council. “I hope to get Pat back in the tower, real quickly. I think that whole team needs some team building and support, because they’ve lacked that help.”

Copyright © 2017, Del Mar Times
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