Residents call for return of Del Mar’s chief lifeguard

About a dozen residents spoke out in support of Del Mar Chief Lifeguard Pat Vergne at Monday’s City Council meeting, held at the temporary city hall (above).
(Kristina Houck)

Some Del Mar residents are calling for the city to reinstate Patrick Vergne, the city’s popular chief lifeguard and director of community services, who was placed on paid administrative leave at the end of March amid a personnel investigation involving his department.

Residents have circulated a petition calling for Vergne’s reinstatement, which had been signed by about 200 people as of Monday, July 10. About a dozen residents also spoke out in support of Vergne at Monday’s City Council meeting. Vergne has worked for Del Mar for about 40 years, according to his attorney, Del Mar resident Dan Crabtree.

“He is the perfect example of what a public servant should be,” Vince Askey told the council.

Maggie McCracken, a physician, said she has known Vergne since both were on the cross-country team at Torrey Pines High School.

She said she has observed Del Mar’s chief lifeguard during several emergencies at the beach. “Pat is amazingly calm and professional as well as kind. That quality is so important.”

Del Mar resident Robin Crabtree reminded the council that citizens are at the top of the city’s organizational chart.

“We are screaming, we are saying enough is enough,” she said. “Get our head lifeguard back into that tower.”

In a statement released Friday, July 7 by Mayor Terry Sinnott, the city said the investigation was prompted by two complaints to the city’s Human Resources Department. Crabtree and City Manager Scott Huth said the complaints were made by employees of the Community Services Department.

City officials decided to hire an outside attorney, Debra Reilly of Encinitas, to investigate the complaints. Sinnott’s statement said that more than 20 witnesses have been interviewed in the course of the investigation along with the review of hundreds of pages of data. A final report on the investigation is expected by the end of the month. Huth estimated the investigation will cost $20,000 to $30,000.

Sinnott’s statement said city officials are not directly involved in the investigation, and that the city has avoided commenting publicly about the case to protect the confidentiality of all parties, including those who made the complaints, those who face allegations and witnesses.

The statement does not disclose the specifics of the allegations or the scope of the investigation.

Dan Crabtree said he has been frustrated by the city’s unwillingness to tell him what wrongdoing, if any, Vergne is accused of committing, or even allow him to see the actual complaints. But he said he has sat through six hours of questioning of Vergne by the investigator, and that some of the questions were about financial transactions such as credit card purchases.

Crabtree said he and many other Del Mar residents believe Vergne should be immediately reinstated to his job, which includes oversight of city parking enforcement, park rangers and issuance of permits for use of city recreational facilities, such as the Powerhouse Community Center.

“I’m 100 percent convinced he’s done absolutely nothing wrong. He has done nothing that I would consider to be wrong or questionable,” Crabtree said.

Vergne began working for the city as a student lifeguard when he was a teenager, and has been chief lifeguard for about 17 years.

“He’s probably the most loved person in all of Del Mar,” Crabtree said, referring to the ranks of city employees. “He doesn’t just take this as a job. For Pat, it’s a passion. He loves the city and he loves his job.”

“He should be back on the job. It’s ridiculous that he’s not,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree also said that he and other residents believe the actions against Vergne stem from a “personal vendetta” against the lifeguard chief by City Manager Scott Huth.

Huth refuted the allegation, noting that, as city manager, he has the authority to dismiss department heads such as Vergne because they are at-will employees.

“I can unilaterally send them down the road. I haven’t done that. I don’t have any personal bad blood with any of the employees involved with the circumstances we are looking at,” Huth said.

Crabtree also took issue with the decision to hire an outside investigator, contending the investigation could have been handled in-house.

But Huth said due to the magnitude of the allegations in the complaints, it was felt an outside investigator would have both the expertise and impartiality to conduct the inquiry.

“My responsibility to the community and the city is to make sure we investigate allegations that are brought forward and we do it in a responsible, thorough and legal manner,” Huth said.

The attorney hired by the city can look at the allegations and evidence with “independent eyes,” Huth said. “To me it’s a positive that we did it in that manner,” he said.

As to the calls for Vergne’s immediate reinstatement, Huth said, “I understand people would like to see him back at work.”

Huth said, however, that would be “premature” since the investigator hasn’t finished her report on the inquiry.

“We still want to have that investigation finished, then see the results of the investigation and be able to move forward. I’m not speculating how that’s going to come out. I’m going to read the report and take it from there,” Huth said.