Del Mar’s fired chief lifeguard disputes allegations
Pat Vergne, Del Mar’s former chief lifeguard and director of community services, is firing back against the city’s allegations that led to his dismissal after nearly 40 years as perhaps the city’s most visible and beloved employee.
After a nearly five-month investigation that infuriated a legion of longtime residents who rallied in Vergne’s support, the city on Aug. 23 fired Vergne — and moved to fire two of his subordinates —alleging a litany of improper actions related to the Powerhouse Community Center, payroll records and a city credit card.
The city had suspended Vergne and Liza Rogers — an administrative assistant in the community services department — in early April after a pair of complaints from two city lifeguards. That led to an exhaustive outside investigation that pored through thousands of records and yielded a 1,700-page report detailing 95 instances between 2015 and 2017 that allegedly cost the city more than $200,000 — primarily that Vergne and Rogers allegedly waived fees for renting the Powerhouse Community Center and filed erroneous overtime claims — as well as allowing a part-time employee to bill the city for more than $20,000 in Powerhouse upkeep.
Vergne’s attorney, Del Mar resident Dan Crabtree, immediately disputed the allegations, and issued a statement on Aug. 24 saying all the practices have long been known to city officials without any issue ever being raised. Crabtree has also criticized the secretive manner in which the city conducted its investigation.
“From the very beginning, Pat was never told about any of the allegations, ever,” Crabtree said in an interview. “They call this due process, but I look at it and say ‘What country do we live in?’ He was never given the chance to defend himself and was never given a chance to respond through this whole process. Del Mar, by its residents, has always been known as the People’s Republic of Del Mar, and they’re living up to that exact billing.”
City officials are standing their ground, saying that the investigation uncovered a pattern of behaviors that kept the allegedly improper activities hidden from sight.
“We have very clear rules and procedures, these employees just elected to avoid them,” City Manager Scott Huth said in an interview. “It’s so bizarre that it’s really collusion. When you have a department head and the administrative person who’s responsible for tracking the fees — our check-and-balance system — colluding to basically defraud the city, it can be very hard to detect. For some of these events, they didn’t fill out any forms at all. We wouldn’t have known if not for the employees who brought it to our attention.”
City officials say they have handed over their findings to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Vergne will decide next week whether to contest his firing in court, Crabtree said.
The largest of the issues consist of discounting or waiving fees for renting Powerhouse Community Center that would have amounted to slightly more than $150,000. Whereas the city claims the discounts were given to friends and acquaintances, Vergne’s statement says they were for memorial services and fundraisers by community groups.
Granting discounts at Powerhouse is a long-standing practice that has benefitted the city far more than the $150,000 in missed revenues, according to Vergne’s statement.
“Everyone in Del Mar understood the transparency of this procedure as it was used to bring the community together and used as a fund raising tool for buildings and projects in Del Mar,” according to the statement. “Del Mar has raised almost $3 million to build the new Lifeguard Center, other buildings and their maintenance and other projects due to functions at the Powerhouse and the discounts that have been given for their use. No other city along the coast of Southern California can boast of the record Del Mar has achieved in fundraising due in large part to the handling of the Community Center/Powerhouse by Pat Vergne and his staff.”
Powerhouse fees were set in 2009 and are specific on what rates to charge, Huth said — typically $3,500 for residents and $5,000 for non-residents. Prior to the investigation, the city’s finance department and auditor saw a drop-off in Powerhouse revenues the past two years and questioned Vergne as to why, Huth said.
“The excuse given back was that the facility was being used by nonprofits instead of revenue-generating groups,” Huth said. “And when they tried to get more information, it wasn’t forthcoming.”
The city’s objection isn’t with nonprofits using the center, but rather that Vergne and Rogers were waiving fees for events that should have been charged, which the city did not know until Vergne told the investigator, Huth said.
“What was told to me was that Pat said he had carte blanche to charge whatever fee he wanted to. No employee, including me, would have that authority,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of it, nor was any of the staff that I talked to. And I’m even more worried when someone says it’s been going on for 17 years. We’re talking about a huge amount of taxpayer money that’s been diverted.”
Councilwoman Sherryl Parks, a 40-year resident who considers Vergne a friend, is unconvinced by the claim that waiving rental fees generated that much revenue for the city.
“That’s all speculation, and he didn’t have the authority to veer off of what the policy was,” Parks said. “We don’t know how much money he raised — and besides, we can’t do business that way. It wouldn’t be fair to others who are being charged the $3,500.”
Vergne also contests the allegation that the $43,000 in overtime for Rogers was improperly charged.
“The total amount of overtime over the last three years has been completely transparent and known to the City Manager as well as the finance department of Del Mar through time cards and time records,” according to his statement.
Huth countered that the finance department did raise questions about excessive overtime prior to the investigation, and was met with the response that Rogers was working special events after hours. When the city looked at the events calendar, those claims didn’t line up, Huth said.
“It’s pretty clear from the investigation that there’s question as to whether or not that employee was even working 40 hours a week, let alone working overtime,” Huth said. “Pat acknowledged to the investigator that he didn’t oversee it as well as he should have.”
The third allegation is that Vergne and Rogers allowed a part-time employee to bill $23,000 as an outside contractor for cleaning and waxing Powerhouse’s floors. Vergne’s statement says it was necessary because the city does not have that equipment.
“He worked for the flooring company when he was not working for or being paid by the City of Del Mar and was paid for that second job accordingly,” according to Vergne’s statement.
But Huth said city policy prohibits contract work for any city employee, and the investigation raises questions as to whether it was a deliberate attempt to side-step the city’s limit on how many hours a part-time employee can work.
“The company that they were contracting with, from our finance department’s perspective, looks like a legitimate contractor to us. That company then subcontracted out to the employee,” Huth said. “That wasn’t apparent to us on the bill. There’s no way for someone to know that. The investigation only stumbled onto that when they were looking at something completely different.”
The final allegation focuses on $4,500 charged to a city credit card. Vergne says the credit card was used for equipment used by lifeguards and other city staff, all of which has been tracked with monthly receipts submitted over the past 10 years.
However, the city’s findings claim Rogers used the card to buy swimsuits, wetsuits and a bicycle worth more than $1,000 that she used to get to and from work. Vergne then approved the purchases into budgets for the lifeguard department and the parking enforcement budget, Huth said.
“None of the feedback that we got is valid,” Huth said. “The person is not a lifeguard and is not a part of parking enforcement.”
The city’s investigation unleashed an outpouring of disbelief and outrage among longtime residents who angrily called for Vergne’s reinstatement at several city council meetings, heralding his compassion and his devotion to Del Mar that started when he became a lifeguard as a teenager and grew over his 17 years as director of community services. A flood of letters, emails and threads on social media is strewn with admiration for his attentive care in working with children and his tireless work to keep Del Mar’s beach safe.
As the investigation dragged into July, his supporters blasted the city for taking on the costs of hiring an outside investigator and for paying employees for months of work.
Huth says the city had no choice.
“He was very specifically interfering with the investigation, multiple times. So we put him on leave and told him to stay home, and even at home he was still interfering,” Huth said. “It was a situation where the city was then exposed to liability because we have whistleblower protections. Here we had a manager who was clearly trying to suppress information. It was a real problem.”
The city council discussed the investigation — as well as a counter-complaint filed by Vergne accusing Huth of harassment — in more than a half dozen closed sessions over the past two months. In closed session on Aug. 22, the city council unanimously supported the way the investigation was carried out.
Councilmembers were given a 200-page executive summary and will be able to review the full 1,700-page report next week, Parks said. She has been pained by the process but is resolute that the city took the necessary steps.
“He’s terrifically popular, and I myself am very fond of him,” she said. “I know he will be missed. The hardest day of my time on the council was to see a good friend like Pat being called up like this. But we have a hat to wear on the council to move the city forward.”
The other four councilmembers did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The city will be posting the bulk of its findings on the city website in response to a pair of public records requests that have been filed, Huth said. The extent and timing is not yet clear.
“Purchases and permits are public record, also a fair amount of the emails,” he said. “But I know that it won’t be everything because there are witnesses that we need to protect.”
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