The Coast News Group
Residents filled council chambers at Sept. 5 meeting to support fired lifeguard chief Pat Vergne, seen here at a Power to the Tower fundraiser with former City Councilwoman Lee Haydu, left, and former County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
Del MarDel Mar FeaturedFeatured

Del Mar staff turmoil worsens

DEL MAR — The Sept. 1 release of an investigator’s report into workplace misconduct and a misuse of public funds in the Community Services Department did little to convince residents — as some city officials claimed it would — that firing its director was justified.

In fact, the voluminous document motivated residents to fill City Council Chambers at the Sept. 5 meeting to speak on behalf of Pat Vergne, who also served as chief lifeguard, criticize the work of the outside investigator, reprimand council members and at one point almost start a chant to fire City Manager Scott Huth.

Former Councilwoman Gay Hugo-Martinez called the report “almost defamatory.” Ronnie Delaney, also a former councilwoman, said it led to the “complete and total destruction of a man, and that is unforgiveable.”

Kristen Druker, whose husband is a sitting councilman, called the entire process “a heartless spectacle” that has cast a “dark cloud over our city.”

“This is really one rotten deal,” said H. Randall Stoke, who called the report “full of nonsense.”

“The city manager went out of his way to … ruin a really good guy,” he added.

“You showed no civility,” Jim Batter said to council members as he pointed to a banner that outlines a code of civil discourse approved as a means to effectively address conflict. “You guys should be ashamed.

“And you should be fired,” he added, pointing to Huth.

The report included details from a months-long investigation that started after two employees in late March and early April filed complaints about the Community Services Department, in which they worked.

There were city facility rental permits, employee timesheets, credit card receipts and outside contractor work orders that allegedly prove Vergne and Liza Rogers, an administrative assistant, cost the city about $200,000 between 2015 and 2017.

According to the documentation they waived or discounted fees totaling about $153,000 for 95 events, mostly at the Powerhouse Community Center.

Of that, $19,150 was for memorial services, including $800 for a paddle out for Nick Leslie, a Del Mar resident who died in the 2016 terrorist attack in France, and services for longtime residents Peter Kaye and John Coughlin, a journalist and community volunteer, respectively.

Another $21,000 is attributed to waived fees for two residents who frequently attend council meetings and are volunteers on city advisory committees.

Robin and Dan Crabtree said they won two free uses of Powerhouse totaling $7,000 as auction items during fundraisers.

Bill Michalsky uses the same facility annually for a party for Del Mar residents. The waived fee totals include the event for this year, which has not yet taken place.

A $4,000 charge for a holiday party for the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito was also waived.

Betty Wheeler said those are examples of uses that should be waived or discounted because when voters approved the facility purchase in 1983 the intent was to use it primarily to provide residents with a community gathering place “first and foremost.”

“As a cash cow for city, a secondary function at best,” she added.

Wheeler said the use policy, updated in 2009, needs to be realigned with that original vision because right now it is the other way around, with the Powerhouse viewed as a profit center where memorials “are treated as private events to be monetized.”

“Give the authority to waive fees to someone who knows our community, understands our Del Mar way and can recognize when something that might be perceived as a private event is actually an event that strengthens our community, brings us together and keeps us the special resident-serving community envisioned in the community plan,” Wheeler said. “Someone, perhaps, with a heart like Pat Verne’s.”

Laura DeMarco agreed.

“It is not a profit center,” she said. “It’s a community center.”

Huth and council members said Vergne had ample opportunities during interviews with the investigator to explain the evidence against him.

Vergne, who was on administrative leave since early April before being fired Aug. 23, said that is “absolutely not true.”

“I told her very little,” he said. “She’s very nice. I’ve heard she’s an excellent investigator. But it seemed like she already knew what she wanted to put out before any of the interviews started.

“She would show me a permit,” he added. “If I said I don’t know who that is and why it’s discounted, she would go to the next permit. On the credit card charges she showed me a few receipts. She asked if I knew why Liza would buy two bikinis. I said it was probably for the female lifeguards.”

Vergne, who started working for the city as a lifeguard about 35 years ago, doesn’t deny most of the allegations. He said it’s the way he’s done things since he was named director of the department nearly 20 years ago.

If there were problems, someone should have told him and he would do things differently, he added.

Vergne cited the original mission statement for Powerhouse and noted all the money that’s been raised for the city via functions held there.

“It’s easy to pinpoint some of the mistakes or things that could have been done differently or look at a spreadsheet and say we lost $150,000,” he said. “The assumption there is that the building would have been rented out for the full rate. And that may not have necessarily been the case.”

“But getting everybody involved and getting the community involved and fundraising through those nonprofits I think accomplished a lot,” Vergne said.