Complaint plunges Del Mar deeper into dispute over city’s chief lifeguard

Supporters of Pat Vergne, Del Mar’s longtime chief lifeguard, applaud demands to end his 14-week suspension at a city council meeting on July 10.
(Sebastian Montes)

The imbroglio over Del Mar’s chief lifeguard is deepening, with Pat Vergne filing a counter-complaint against the city manager and city attorney that has forced the city council to hire outside counsel to lead the personnel investigation and brace for potential lawsuits.

Vergne, Del Mar’s longtime director of community services, was put on paid leave nearly four months ago after a pair of internal complaints were filed against him — the first in late March and the second in early April. Details of the complaints have not been made public, but city leaders have acknowledged that an investigation by an independent attorney has encompassed hundreds of pages of documents and testimony from more than 20 witnesses.

As Vergne’s suspension dragged into its 15th week, a group of residents mounted a campaign to have him reinstated. With hundreds of signatures in hand, they implored the city council to act on Monday, July 10. In the wake of that outcry, Vergne filed his complaint against City Manager Scott Huth and City Attorney Leslie Devaney.

City officials and Vergne’s attorney would not disclose details of the new complaint.

“I really can’t talk about anything that we just filed,” Daniel Crabtree, Vergne’s attorney, said July 12.

The city council responded with a series of emergency closed session meetings to figure out how they can move forward without conferring with Huth and Devaney. City policy prohibits councilmembers from conferring with city employees other than the city manager and city attorney, both of whom are named in Vergne’s complaint.

“It’s quite delicate because the only ability we have is to manage the city attorney and the city manager, and the city manager is in charge of all personnel issues within the city,” said Councilman Dave Druker. “It’s frustrating that we’re having such difficulty between two people who are so prominent in this town.”

The council held three closed sessions — on July 13, July 17 and July 18 — to find outside counsel to carry out the investigation and handle any potential litigation. Mayor Terry Sinnott and Councilwoman Ellie Haviland will oversee the investigation and update the rest of the council as it progresses.

Those updates will not be made public, as the council remains limited by confidentiality rules.

“As much as we can disclose, we will disclose,” Druker said. “We’re hoping to wrap this up as quickly as possible. We’re hoping it’s not months.”

Huth has won glowing praise — as well as raises — from the city council in each of his annual performance reviews since becoming the city’s top administrator in 2012.

But at the July 10 hearing, several residents had harsh words for the now-embattled manager. Two dozen Vergne supporters packed into the council’s chambers, perplexed that the dispute wasn’t resolved in a matter of days or weeks, instead of half of the summer, and warning the council that the situation was only going to get worse. Several cited a long-simmering feud between Huth and Vergne.

“It is an investigation gone wild,” said Del Mar resident Hershell Price. “Over the years the city manager and Pat Vergne have butted heads at times and there’s no secret that there’s bad blood between them. … I and a great many others in our community believe the investigation is a witch hunt with the desired outcome — and this is important — being the dismissal of our beloved Pat Vergne.”

Huth did not return calls and an email, but did briefly address the issue later that night.

“I am encouraged to hear everybody show up on behalf of Pat, and I do think that Pat does have a strong history with the community and providing good service to the community, so it’s encouraging to hear that he has this support. I know he has more support than who showed up today,” he said.

Crabtree, a Del Mar resident, was among the wave of voices on July 10 demanding Vergne’s reinstatement. He did not disclose details of the investigation, but urged the city to act now that the investigation has run its course.

“I know why Pat was put on administrative leave with pay. Those reasons have now since passed. There is no reason in my mind why Pat Vergne cannot be put back in the tower immediately. The investigation is over. I sat through six hours of Pat’s testimony, the lady who did the investigation is writing that up now. There are no more witnesses for her to hear.”

That report is expected by the end of the month.