Decision nears on fate of Del Mar’s embattled city manager

The Del Mar City Council’s decision on the future of City Manager Scott Huth is expected by the end of the month, after a tumultuous year led to an unprecedentedly detailed performance review that has dragged out for three months.

Over his first five years as city manager, Huth won widespread praise and pay raises in each of his performance reviews, with his base salary climbing from $180,000 in 2012 to $207,000 last year.

But in May, Huth found himself at the center of controversy over his handling of the investigation and termination of longtime chief lifeguard and Community Services Director Pat Vergne, who was fired on Aug. 23 after a four-month investigation alleged a pattern of mismanagement that officials say cost the city more than $200,000 between 2015 and 2017, primarily from waiving fees to rent Powerhouse Community Center.

Incensed residents accused Huth of orchestrating the investigation and termination as a vendetta against Vergne, an allegation Huth denies. In response, more than 300 residents signed a petition calling on the city council not to renew Huth’s contract for 2018.

The criticism spurred several community leaders to Huth’s defense, who said the issues with Vergne predated Huth’s tenure and hailed Huth’s record of putting Del Mar on its most solid financial footing in recent memory.

In the face of the uproar, the city council conceded that it needed to change how it carries out Huth’s performance reviews.

The council has conducted Huth’s review in closed session, beginning Oct. 2. The review was scheduled to wrap up on Dec. 20, but the hour-long discussion did not bring the matter to rest. Mayor Dwight Worden expects the council to hold at least one more closed session before reaching its decision by the end of the month.

Worden declined to go into further detail until the council comes to a consensus.

“I can say that we’re doing a deeper dive into review of the city manager than we’ve ever done before,” Worden said. “For the first time, as far as I know, we’ve hired an outside consultant to do a neutral, 360-degree review.”

The consultant has interviewed roughly 30 people, Worden said, including department heads, employees and members of the community.

Huth, for his part, feels that the review “went well.”

“I received very positive feedback from Councilmembers and my coworkers and I have a good list of items and projects to work on for 2018,” he wrote in an email. “2017 was a very busy year and our team and the community accomplished a lot. We also had some significant challenges that we faced while we continued to focus on the needs and priorities of the community. I am looking forward to working closely with the Councilmembers, Community nonprofits and volunteers, residents, businesses and my coworkers to continue make Del Mar a great place to live, work and visit. Great things are in Del Mar’s future.”

The council last renewed Huth’s contract in 2014 through a three-year extension, an amendment to which listed Jan. 1, 2018 as the contract’s end date. However, his original 2012 contract contains a provision requiring six months’ notice in order to not renew. Because the council did not take action in July, Huth’s contract automatically renewed for one year, through the end of December 2018.

That leaves the council with four options. First is to renew the contract at the end of this month for another three years. The second option is to terminate for cause with 30 days’ notice. Third is to terminate without cause, which would trigger a severance package of up to nine months of salary and benefits. The fourth option is to give notice of non-renewal some time prior to July 1, allowing the contract to expire at the end 2018 without severance.