DEL MAR — Pat Vergne, the former chief lifeguard and community services director who was fired in August, has filed a claim for damages against the city in excess of $5 million.
The document, dated Dec. 5, accuses all five City Council members and City Manager Scott Huth of defamation, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy and wrongful termination.
Vergne began working in Del Mar as a lifeguard in 1980. He rose to the position of head lifeguard and has been in charge of the Community Services Department for about 20 years.
His responsibilities included overseeing his staff, beach safety and city facility rentals. In July he was placed on paid administrative leave after two lifeguards filed separate complaints in March and April with the Human Resources Department.
Daniel Crabtree, who was representing Vergne at the time, said it all started when his client intervened in an argument between two lifeguards and Liza Rogers, an administrative assistant in his department.
“Basically Pat tried to break up a verbal fight between three people that work for him (who) were yelling at each other … because of a parking ticket,” Crabtree said.
The city eventually hired an outside investigator to look into the complaints. Vergne was fired Aug. 23 after a four-month investigation, which according to his claim, was “retaliatory, harassing, and discriminatory, and therefore unlawful.”
According to the investigator’s report, Vergne and Rogers cost the city a little more than $200,000 during a three-year period, mostly by reducing or waiving facility rental fees.
Additionally, the report states, Vergne signed off on alleged false claims for overtime and personal purchases on a city credit card submitted by Rogers and allowed a part-time employee to be paid twice for the same work.
Vergne said he could have done a better job monitoring overtime, but he believes the credit card purchases were for department-related items and part-time worker Oscar Rivas didn’t “double-dip” for Powerhouse Community Center maintenance.
He also doesn’t deny adjusting the cost for some facility rentals. He said fees have historically been waived or reduced for certain events, such as memorial services and community gatherings.
He said city officials have access to all records and no one, including previous city managers, said he should do things differently.
His claim states council members and the city manager knew he “had simply been following the previously-established protocols and procedures that the City itself had been approving for years but chose to use these claimed violations as pretest to terminate and discredit” him.
Residents have accused Huth of failing to do his job, citing a 2009 resolution updating regulations and fees that states, “final permit approval … shall be made by the City Manager.”
The claim for damages states that council members and Huth “began a fraudulent campaign to discredit and ultimately terminate Mr. Vergne.”
The document also alleges that for years preceding Vergne’s termination he was “continuously harassed and exposed to a hostile work environment” by Huth, who “began a faulty and pretextual investigation into supposed ‘complaints’ from employees” and then “falsely and publically” claimed Vergne interfered with the investigative process.
Vergne’s claim also states he was “fraudulently induced” to cooperate with the investigation with promises that his statements would be kept private and not used against him in any subsequent criminal proceedings.
However, the case was referred to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for investigation, a press release was issued and the report was made public two days after Vergne was fired.
Many residents have publically supported Vergne and criticized the city for the way it handled the situation. Vergne was an at-will employee, which means he could have been fired for no reason at any time.
Vergne filed a complaint against Huth claiming harassment and general mistreatment. After a one-month investigation by another independent third party, those claims were determined to be unfounded.
According to the report, some witnesses accused Vergne of negative and unprofessional conduct, undermining Huth’s authority and being “at war” with the city manager.
Vergne is now represented by Walter Lack and Michael Lewis from the Los Angeles law offices of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack.
Del Mar City Attorney Leslie Devaney said the legal department is reviewing Vergne’s claim and will discuss it with council members in closed session, as all personnel matters are. Until then, she said, she had no comment.