This story has been updated.
DEL MAR — In less than 48 hours, nearly 200 residents have signed a petition demanding the city’s community services director and chief lifeguard be reinstated to his position immediately.
Pat Vergne, who has worked for Del Mar for more than 35 years — about 20 of them as head lifeguard — has been on paid administrative leave since early spring after two lifeguards filed separate complaints in March and April with the Human Resources Department.
He and Liza Rogers, an administrative assistant in his department, have been out for 15 weeks while Debra Reilly, an Encinitas-based attorney, has been investigating the situation.
“All complaints received by the City are taken seriously and looked into as required by law,” Mayor Terry Sinnott wrote in an email seeking comment: “After evaluating the nature of the complaints, it was determined that the investigation should be conducted by an outside legal investigator with no ties to Del Mar.”
According to Daniel Crabtree, who is representing Vergne, exactly what is being scrutinized is somewhat of a mystery.
“The main problem is the city is playing hide behind the ball,” Crabtree said. “They won’t tell me or Pat what they are investigating. It’s hard to represent or defend someone when you don’t know what the complaints are or what they are investigating.
“It really is a one-sided show,” he said. “There is no due process from what I can see.”
Crabtree said he believes it started when Vergne intervened in an argument between two lifeguards and Rogers.
“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,” he said. “(Rogers) was ticketed at the direction of a lifeguard.
“Pat just sort of walked into it and he tried to break up the fight and act as a mediator and told these people to cool off and suggested they go to lunch and relax,” Crabtree added. “He wasn’t even involved in the altercation.”
But after listening to six hours of testimony, Crabtree said he believes there may be more to it.
He said more time was spent asking questions about the permit process for Powerhouse Community Center, purchases made on a city credit card by the assistant for lifeguard equipment, such as wetsuits, and repairs and Rogers’ overtime during the past three years.
“They morphed into saying they were investigating workplace misconduct,” Crabtree said. “The part that irritates me the most is that I don’t know why they’re asking about this or if they’re accusing somebody of something. They’ve never told me.
“But Del Mar, starting with the city manager on down, has had all these records,” he added. “None of this is secret. They’ve never said a word about it other than a few passing comments. Nobody’s ever been critical.
“In my mind this is a premier example of a witch hunt,” Crabtree said. “It’s ridiculous. The city’s spent thousands and thousands of dollars on what should have been handled internally by the city manager since he’s had all of this information for the last three years right at his fingertips.”
Vergne and Rogers have combined annual salaries of approximately $188,500, which means the city has paid them approximately $62,800 during their four months of leave and “is getting nothing out of them,” Crabtree noted. Del Mar has also paid Reilly’s fees, which City Manager Scott Huth said amounted to approximately $30,000.
Mayor Sinnott said the process has been long because of the volume of information that has been reviewed and analyzed. More than 20 witnesses were interviewed and there are “hundreds of pages of data that will be exhibits to the final report,” he said.
Crabtree said because the proceedings are administrative and not criminal the city isn’t required to provide him with all the discovery materials and documents.
“Right now we’re playing by their rules, and their rules are whatever they want them to be and that’s very, very frustrating to somebody like me who says there should be full disclosure so we all have all of the facts so we can all react accordingly,” he said.
“But when one side has all the facts and the other is playing with both arms behind their back there’s a tremendous inequity there that really favors the city of Del Mar and the employees who made the complaint, and it’s very detrimental to the person that potentially the complaint is against,” he added. “Pat could just be a participant with this or he could be part of the complaint. I don’t know.”
Sinnott said the investigation should be complete by the end of July but city officials may not be able to comment publicly on the outcome.
“During an investigation, confidentiality and privacy of all involved must be maintained,” he stated in the email. “The privacy of the complainants, alleged offenders, and witnesses must be protected … from threats or claims of retaliation.
“It is of the utmost importance to maintain the confidentiality of the investigative process and avoid potential interference or allegations of undue influence,” he added. “There has been a concerted effort by the City to protect all employees by not speaking publicly about this process or any facts that may be known.”
He said if changes are made operationally, however, the city “will be able to advise the public.”
“We understand that members of the community are hearing rumors or may have even spoken with someone who has been involved with some aspect of the investigative process,” Sinnott said. “We ask that you avoid rushing to judgement and remain neutral as the City completes the investigative process. Please be mindful that you may be only hearing one perspective or point of view about this situation and you are not hearing all of the facts.”
More than two dozen residents attended the July 10 council meeting to support Vergne. During public comment people described him as calm, kind, professional and a “perfect example of what a public servant should be.”
“This needs to end,” said Crabtree’s wife, Robin. “We are screaming. We are saying enough is enough. … He epitomizes what the Del Mar way is and he needs to be back in the tower now.”
“This is just not right,” said Andy Schooler, whose brother served as a lifeguard lieutenant in Del Mar about 30 years ago. “Pat Vergne is solid gold. … He has served this community incredibly and it’s a disservice to have this going on to him.”
Councilman Dave Druker said he doesn’t “have a voice in personnel matters beyond the city manager and city attorney,” but he is “as frustrated as most of the other people in town that this is taking so long.”
While unknowns remain, Crabtree said one thing is certain in his mind.
“I’ve listened to six hours of testimony and there is nothing in my estimation that Pat has done wrong in terms of workplace misconduct,” he said. “He’s a trusting individual. If there is anything that the investigator finds that Pat has done wrong, Scott Huth, the city manager, has just as much culpability because he’s had all these records for three years and said nothing.”
Vergne said “with all due respect” he could not comment now. At press time Huth did not return an email request for comment
Sinnott said during the investigation, steps have been taken to maintain community services and beach operations during the summer season.