DEL MAR — Despite criticism of an investigation report and calls to return Pat Vergne to his position, city officials are standing by their decision to fire the longtime community services department director and chief lifeguard, as well as two other employees.
On Aug. 25, two days after Vergne’s termination, a summary explanation titled “The Right Decision for Del Mar” was posted on the city website and sent to eblast subscribers.
“It is residents who are hurt when public money is misappropriated and misused,” it stated, adding City Council and residents “expect city employees to perform their job at a high level and to be held accountable when they fail to do so.”
Failing to properly investigate and take appropriate action would be a failure for the entire Del Mar community, it read.
A summary of the months-long investigation was included.
According to a redacted copy of the report, released about a week later, Vergne and administrative assistant Liza 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 said fees to use that and other facilities 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.
Residents accused current City Manager Scott 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.”
“Was the ordinance or procedure being followed?” one resident asked. “Doesn’t this lack of follow through ultimately fall onto Scott Huth?”
Despite the resolution wording, Huth said department directors are expected to follow established rules and regulations.
“That is what was believed to be the case with regard to the processing of permits and collection of required fees until it was reported otherwise,” he said. “As soon as it was alleged that misconduct in this area was occurring, the city took immediate action to investigate and correct.”
Huth said the credit card purchases, such as wetsuits, bikes and medical and office supplies, were typical for the Community Services Department, “and it was not known that these items were for personal use until the complaint was received and investigated.”
He said each item was reviewed, coded and authorized by Vergne and sent to the Finance Department for payment. He said he also reviewed the expenditures but given their nature “it was not obvious to anyone outside the department that these items were purchased for personal use.”
Councilman Dwight Worden, in a Sept. 4 email to constituents, said after reviewing the voluminous report he concluded Huth was justified in firing Rogers and Vergne, although he doesn’t agree with all aspects of the conclusions reached by independent investigator.
He described Verne as a dedicated, 30-plus-year employee who is “personable, has great ‘customer’ relations skills, and has done much to make Del Mar a better place.
“He has a big heart and has dedicated much of his life to Del Mar for which our community is justifiably thankful,” Worden wrote.
“However … Pat has often performed poorly as a manager,” he added. “The record revealed by the investigative reports shows he has a long history, going back through several city managers, of struggling to meet standards as a manager.”
Worden also noted the record shows Vergne “was advised confidentially of his poor performance as a manager on many occasions over the years. Counseling and other interventions were attempted. In recent years these problems got worse, not better.”
Lauraine Brekke-Esparza, the city manager when the Powerhouse opened to the public, said because it was nearly 20 years ago she couldn’t remember a lot of specific details, but rules and a fee schedule for the Powerhouse were often adjusted as use of the facility increased over time.
She said waiving fees for memorials, community events and events for city employees “seems likes something we would have allowed.”
“We had my retirement party there,” she added. “I’m sure Pat didn’t charge for that.”
Karen Brust, Del Mar’s city manager from 2007 to 2011 who now holds the same position in Encinitas, did not return multiple requests for comments.
Worden in his email said the record is unambiguous that Vergne failed to follow the adopted fee schedule for facility rentals.
“This is a serious failing, reflecting the fact that Pat exercised discretion he did not have to waive or reduce fees over the three years,” he wrote. “It seems equally clear to me, however, that these transgressions were, in the main, well intentioned.
“Pat granted many fee waivers or reductions for memorial services, for community organizations, for current and prior city employees, to avoid disputes over residency, when the Powerhouse otherwise would have been empty, and for what Pat perceived to be civic events benefiting Del Mar,” Worden added.
“As a result there is a significant amount of money that should have been charged that was not collected,” he wrote. “It is not clear, however, that all of these contested events would have taken place if charged per the fee schedule, so the total amount of money ‘lost’ to the city is uncertain.”
In Vergne’s “defense,” Worden stated, he understood “how Pat may have believed there was a ‘pattern and practice’ in Del Mar” to waive or reduce fees for certain events and that when the Powerhouse was acquired and rehabilitated it was intended to be a community center and not a revenue producer.
“However well intentioned, he acted outside the rules and on his own granted unauthorized waivers,” Worden wrote. “This reflects poor judgment and poor management on his part.”
Worden acknowledged the scope of his review is narrow, but in his opinion, “both firings are supported by the record.”
Several residents who spoke at the Sept. 5 City Council meeting criticized Worden’s email, calling it “damning” and “a kick while (Vergne) is down.”
Worden said he is willing to review the report again to highlight any mistakes or misleading statements.
Some residents said explanations were not thorough. For example, Robin and Dan Crabtree were not charged $7,000 for two events. They said they won the two free uses of Powerhouse as auction items during fundraisers, although the city clerk said there is no proof of that.
Councilman Dave Druker apologized for not doing more to “change this … long before it happened.”
Mayor Terry Sinnott said the report was thorough, fair and methodical and he fully supports the council’s unanimous decision to support Huth’s recommendation to fire the employees.
“We are looking out for this community,” Sinnott said. “It may not appear that way because of the emotions and the strong attachment that everybody has for Pat.”
One resident said there is talk in the community of a recall of the City Council, a petition to fire Huth or both.