Petition calls for Del Mar to part ways with its city manager

Fallout from the Pat Vergne controversy refuses to abate.

With the specter of two possible lawsuits hanging overhead, a group of irate residents have mounted a petition calling on the city council not to renew the contract of City Manager Scott Huth when it expires in January.

The petition on had amassed 279 signors as of Wednesday morning, Oct. 4 — including five former city council members — setting up a standoff between an influential faction of longtime residents and a city council that has consistently praised Huth’s performance throughout his six years as city manager.

The fount of their ire: the contentious firing of Vergne, who as director of Community Services and chief lifeguard was the city’s most visible and well-regarded employee — to many residents, the very face of city government. Vergne and two of his subordinates were terminated on Aug. 23 after a four-month investigation that allegedly depicted a pattern of mismanagement that officials say cost the city more than $200,000 between 2015 and 2017, primarily by waiving fees to rent the Powerhouse Community Center.

The decision to fire Vergne — and the grounds used to justify it — touched off a powder keg of outrage from Vergne supporters who countered that his practice of discounting Powerhouse fees was widely known and benefited the city far more than it cost.

Robin Crabtree, whose husband represented Vergne during the investigation, brought the petition to the city council at its Oct. 2 meeting. Huth was away on his customary October vacation.

“It’s one simple premise, nothing else: we’re asking the city council to look forward to the future of Del Mar and not renew the contract of the current city manager. We feel he is not the right fit for the future of Del Mar,” she said. “… We want to be heard. We also do not want you to treat us like we were ignorant, because we’re not. We are all very well-informed and want all of you to hear us.”

The petitioners’ objections extend far beyond the Vergne fiasco, said former councilwoman Gay Hugo-Martinez. She cited several instances in which she felt Huth’s leadership was wanting: installation of new parking meters in North Beach, which she said took more than two years because of problems with the city’s application to the California Coastal Commission; a street improvement project at Camino Del Mar and Carmel Valley Road that provoked outcry from neighbors; and the city’s 2017-18 budget, which a resident committee this summer found to have a $900,000 overrun.

“It all falls on our city manager,” Hugo-Martinez said. “Of all the places to cut your teeth, Del Mar is not the place to do it. How much learning on the job does he have to do before you say enough is enough? … Never, never, in the 30-some years I have lived here have I ever seen so many people in the community come together over one issue like they have [now].”

As the petition built steam in the two weeks since its launch, it also spurred others to Huth’s defense, including three former councilmembers who sent letters to the city in the past week.

In his letter, James “Bud” Emerson, a former councilman who now sits on the city’s finance committee, expressed concern that the petition “is representing Del Mar citizenry in a way that does not reflect our core values and principles of balance and fairness.” He urged the council to weigh the entirety of Huth’s performance in a principled way, the good and the bad.

“I do not want Del Mar to be seen as a city that politicizes an important strategic decision,” he wrote. “We owe it to him and we owe it to ourselves. Del Mar’s reputation as a principled, fair-minded community is at stake.”

Former councilwoman Lee Haydu, who was on the council when Huth was hired, said he “has done more good for the city than any other City Manager in my memory.” And Don Mosier, the mayor at the time, said Huth deserves credit for putting the city in “much better shape” than it had been when Mosier joined the council in 2008.

“Some have asserted that problems between Pat Vergne and the city manager started after Scott was appointed. This is false, as these conflicts date back to at least two prior city managers. So Scott inherited this problem, and tried diligently for five years to solve it,” Mosier wrote. “No one is happy when a long-term city employee needs to be replaced, but it appears to me that there was no other course of action give the formal complaints the city received. When the city manager has to make a difficult decision, we should acknowledge that this comes with the territory and not engage in a campaign of recrimination without full knowledge of the facts. The facts in this confidential personnel issue are known only to the council, the city manager, and the city attorney, and we need to trust that each fulfilled their duty to the citizens of Del Mar.”

The city council has held its ground throughout the investigation and ensuing backlash, but did make a concession last month: to reevaluate how they carry out Huth’s annual performance reviews.

Council members have not disclosed what changes, if any, they made to Huth’s review process. The topic was on the agenda for the closed session portion of the council’s Oct. 2 meeting, after which City Attorney Leslie Devaney confirmed that Huth’s review had begun.

Also on the closed session agenda: “conference with legal counsel on potential litigation on two matters … relative to the Community Services Department,” Devaney said.