The release of documents from the four-month investigation that led to last month’s termination of Pat Vergne, Del Mar’s chief lifeguard and director of community services, has inflamed the already contentious dispute into a fire storm.
In one scathing diatribe after another at the Del Mar City Council’s first meeting since Vergne’s firing, a cadre of longtime residents on Sept. 5 lambasted City Manager Scott Huth for his handling of the investigation — at one point breaking out into a chant of “Fire him!” — and vented outrage toward the council for taking a back seat as the investigation dragged on.
The investigation stoked an uproar this summer as an outside investigator pored through thousands of records and interviewed 20 city employees, culminating on Aug. 23 when the city fired Vergne and two of his subordinates. The investigation details 95 instances between 2015 and 2017 that allegedly cost the city more than $200,000 — primarily for waived Powerhouse fees and erroneous overtime claims.
Del Mar officials posted a trove of documents last week from the 1,700-page report, including emails and an itemized listing of cases in which the city says Vergne improperly waived fees. As Vergne supporters dug into the documents over the weekend, they were outraged to see what they believe to be inconsistencies and mischaracterizations.
Facing that backlash at a packed meeting on Tuesday night, Sept. 5, the council took the unusual step of giving residents wider berth during the public comment portion of the meeting. The 19 residents who spoke called on the council to exonerate and reinstate Vergne, worrying that the episode has cast an indelible stain on the city’s image.
“What we have been witnessing in the firing of Pat — a longtime, greatly loved employee — feels like a tip of the iceberg. This event speaks volumes about how the city is governed, values that are espoused and the culture Mr. Huth has established,” said Suren Dutia. “The peace and tranquility has been replaced by constant rumors and acrimony. One gets the feeling that the administration isn’t here to serve; they act as if their job is to rule and control us. Is this what you stand for? Please don’t have blinders. I respectfully ask, is this the legacy you wish to leave behind for the community that you profess to care about and love?”
Several residents assailed the report’s credibility by pointing to instances cited in the investigation that they said were actually discounts for fundraisers, charity auctions, events by community groups — even a memorial service for one of Del Mar’s most well-known residents.
They also asked the council to rewrite its policy on Powerhouse fees, harkening back to the original intent when the center opened at the turn of the millennium. In a brief but meticulous presentation, Betty Wheeler described how the original intent was to “provide a community gathering place which encourages informal drop-by uses,” with private events meant as a secondary use. And Ralph DeMarco, who was on the city’s finance committee at the time, explained that the Powerhouse had been expected to cost $5 million but a grassroots fundraising Powerhouse campaign winnowed down the expense to $2.4 million.
“We saved $2.6 million and the way we did that was Pat Vergne — and you want to talk about $150,000,” he said.
DeMarco then blasted Huth and the council for “the ugly injustice” done to Vergne based on an investigation he sees as rife with inaccuracies.
“What you’re doing is just exposing the city to untold liability and rancor,” he said. “The ineptitude and the incompetence is just astounding. I’ve lived here for 30 years and I haven’t seen anything like it.”
A common refrain this summer was frustration over the secretive manner in which the city carried out its investigation — which city officials attributed to confidentiality restrictions and legal liability.
Nonetheless, Alan Sweedler said the end result was far too drastic.
“It may very well be that legally you’re on solid ground … but something much more important has been broken, and that’s the trust that people have in one another and in their form of government and the council and the city manager. You can’t run a small city where everyone knows everyone if you don’t have that trust,” he said. “… It’s never too late to admit a mistake has been made. There is nothing that I can see in any legal or policy issues that prevents the council from reversing the decision that it didn’t make but that it supported. As we’ve heard over and over again: ultimately, you are responsible for what happens in this town.”
After the residents spoke, each member of the council made a statement. They acknowledged a need to reevaluate a range of policies, including Powerhouse fees and the council’s relationship with the city manager. In a closed session that preceded Tuesday night’s meeting, the council took its first steps in reevaluating how it conducts the city manager’s annual performance reviews.
But none said they are willing to reinstate Vergne.
Mayor Terry Sinnott Sinnott closed out the council’s comments, resolute that firing Vergne was the proper course of action.
“The conclusion I come out with after looking at the investigation and the data is that we have really two Pats. We have the one that we all love, the one that is wonderful to people, the one who is responsive to everyone. He is the one that I hope always can be successful and can move forward,” he said. “There’s another part of his responsibility, however, and that is as a manager of his department and his resources. My conclusion, based on what I saw in the report and the data in the report, was [that] he has had … some problems in that regard that warrant a termination. I fully support what this council has done and what the city manager has done. It’s been very methodical, very careful and I think very fair.”