Detective’s calls sparks tumult over Vergne investigation

A series of phone calls from a sheriff’s detective has rekindled tempers over the alleged wrongdoings of Del Mar’s former chief lifeguard, with a group of longtime residents calling on the city to back off from the criminal probe into the longest-serving employee Del Mar has ever had.

Pat Vergne, the city’s former director of Community Services, was fired along with two of his subordinates in August after a four-month investigation brought to light a range of practices that allegedly cost the city more than $200,000 between 2015 and 2017, primarily in discounts for renting the Powerhouse Community Center.

Months of relative calm came to an end last month when Vergne filed a $5 million claim for damages against the city. Nerves flared again last week when a detective from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department called multiple Del Mar residents and asked about their purchase of parking passes and Powerhouse rentals — functions that both fall under the purview of the Community Services Department Vergne worked in for nearly 40 years.

Reached this week, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said its investigation is, so far, looking into misdemeanor charges.

“We can confirm there is an active, on-going criminal investigation for misdemeanor larceny charges, however, charges might be changed and/or additional charges may be added as the investigation continues,” Lt. Karen Stubkjaer wrote in a Jan. 9 email to this newspaper.

After firing Vergne, city officials gave the sheriff’s department various documents from the city’s internal investigation and then backed away, but last week’s calls from the detective spurred questions over the city’s role in the criminal investigation.

Mayor Dwight Worden responded with a memo explaining that the criminal investigation is being driven solely by police and prosecutors, with the city’s involvement limited to handing over the documents last summer. Del Mar is not conducting an audit of parking passes or Powerhouse rentals, he said, nor has the city asked police to do so.

“The questions being asked by Del Mar citizens about what this is all about are understandable,” Worden wrote in the memo. “The facts are important. Based on my review with city staff and having reviewed input from the sheriff office, here are the key facts. The sheriff’s office, on its own, decided to make these calls apparently as part of its ongoing investigation. The city did not direct or ask for these calls to be made.”

Those assertions did little to dissuade Vergne supporters from taking the city council and City Manager Scott Huth to task at the council’s Jan. 8 meeting, where they argued that the city manager has final responsibility for approving permits and rentals, and that the city council, in turn, is responsible for overseeing the city manager.

“Yet all of you are collectively piling on to Mr. Vergne, attempting to shift the blame for your failures to the most loyal and beloved employee in Del Mar,” said Pam Slater-Price. “In my 21 years in Del Mar, I have never seen such a poorly run city government. It will be remembered in November, trust me.”

“The whole thing sounds very fishy,” said Zelda Waxenberg, one of the residents called by the detective. “I just find the whole thing very disturbing, that there’s things going on with the city that are not up front and open and clear. … Please back off this investigation.”

The crux of their argument is that a 2009 ordinance spells out that the city manager is ultimately responsible for approving permits to use public facilities. Huth has rebutted those claims, pointing to a section of the ordinance that says the city manager can delegate the responsibility. When he designated Vergne with the duty, Huth says he did not give authority to allow discounts.

But Vergne’s supporters point to other sections of the same ordinance that give the city manager final say on approving permits.

“If he had done his job, none of us would be here today and you wouldn’t be facing a $5 million lawsuit … being handled by one of the best attorneys probably in the United States,” said Gay Hugo-Martinez, a former councilwoman and former federal prosecutor.

The city has until the end of next week to respond to Vergne’s $5 million claim. If a settlement isn’t reached, the claim could then move into state court.

But regarding the criminal charges, that decision falls solely to police and prosecutors, not the city, Worden said.

“The sheriff and [San Diego District Attorney] have authority to investigate and decide if a crime was committed independent of what the city wishes or requests,” Worden wrote in an email to this newspaper. “That's how it should be; Del Mar runs a city, the sheriff and DA decide matters related to investigating and prosecuting crimes, especially relating to public monies and assets. Our situation is not the same as a private crime where the private victim has some discretion whether to pursue charges. Here, if there is a victim, it's the public represented by the sheriff and DA.”

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