DEL MAR — Despite opposition from more than 50 residents, council members at the Feb. 5 meeting, with a rare split vote, approved a 5 percent pay raise, 4 percent one-time bonus and one-year contract extension for City Manager Scott Huth.
“Representing the opinions of the people is more important than going along to get along,” Councilman Dave Druker said. “We at the dais, including the city manager, cannot make decisions solely on objective facts. We must take into consideration decisions based upon the sense of the community.”
Druker said he could not “in good conscience” support the salary increases or contract extension for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Huth’s performance was rated good.
During his more than 40-year business career, he said, a person with that evaluation would receive a cost of living increase at best, but not a merit raise and never a bonus.
He said he has “consistently seen (Huth) fall back on expert opinion rather than understanding what is best for the community.” Druker also noted a lack of trust between the city manager and the public that “can only be regained by excellent communication and involvement with the community.”
“Communication and building bridges to the community is not a strength of the city manager,” he added.
Except for a legally required cost-of-living increase, Mayor Dwight Worden opposed the salary increases but said he supports the contract extension to give Huth a chance to improve in areas such resident interaction.
Council members Terry Sinnott and Ellie Haviland, who made up the subcommittee that recommended the raises and contract extension, said they considered Huth’s myriad accomplishments, including maintaining balanced operating and capital budgets, securing bridge replacement funding and continued work on projects such as the new civic center, the Shores Park master plan and street and sidewalk improvements, to name a few.
They also took into consideration responses to an online staff survey completed and an increase in the city’s financial stability.
But not everyone was impressed by his accomplishments.
“I would call that doing his job,” resident Pam Slater-Price said.
“Our financial health is based upon the revenues that have been increasing over the last five, six years,” Druker said. “It has nothing to do with the city manager.”
Bettina Experton, former chairwoman of the Finance Committee, stated in an email that “none of the financial matters listed in the memo can be characterized as ‘major’ or ‘outstanding’ when they simply illustrate normal and routinely achieved financial matters.”
Residents also criticized the evaluation for not including anything negative, such as a high staff turnover and Huth’s handling of the Pat Vergne situation.
Huth recommended firing Vergne, Del Mar’s longtime community services director and chief lifeguard who is highly regarding by many residents, in August after a monthslong investigation into workplace misconduct and misuse of public funds.
The situation was highly publicized and evidence was turned over to the Sheriff’s Department, which recently determined, “There is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that crimes were committed.”
Of the 42 emails received by the city only one supported rewarding Huth. Nearly half referenced Vergne but many said it wasn’t the only reason they opposed the raises and contract extension.
Huth “has polarized and continually failed our Del Mar community,” Lisa Uhrhammer wrote. “We are supporters of Pat Vergne — but this is far more than just about the wrongful termination of Vergne. Huth has continually been dismissive and disrespectful to residents of Del Mar.”
During the hourlong public comment period, 20 of the 21 speakers also opposed the subcommittee recommendations, with some calling them a “slap in the face to residents.”
Laura DeMarco highlighted escalating legal costs during Huth’s tenure associated with Vergne’s termination and the lawsuit he recently filed against the city. Jeffrey Lehmann said the city manager is already “grossly overpaid and he fantastically mismanaged the Pat Vergne situation.”
“Our community is divided and we need healing and this is not the way to do it,” Robin Crabtree said. “We’re the customers but we seem to have been forgotten.”
Former Councilman Al Corti said he came to the meeting to vouch for Huth’s “honesty, his integrity, his care for the city, his trying to do the best he can at all times.
“It doesn’t mean that he’s accomplished … it the right way all the time but he tries hard, and that is very important,” Corti said. “I look at the list of accomplishments … and I would say that’s what I want a city manager to do.
“And I think he’s doing an excellent job,” he added. “The committee and the council have looked at this Pat Vergne issue. … It was not a city manager decision all alone. Whatever occurred was the right thing to have occurred and we should move on.”
Nancy Fisher submitted in email supporting Huth.
“I was treated with respect and generosity by Pat Vergne, and wish him the best,” she wrote. “But after years of credible proof, to me at least, of his inability to work with superiors toward common goals, I regretfully feel that replacing him was necessary.”
City Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said staff evaluations described Huth as hardworking, driven, patient and dedicated to the city.
Huth took over the city’s top post on Jan. 1, 2012, and has received positive reviews and raises every year since.
The 3 percent cost-of-living raise bumps his current annual salary of approximately $211,130 by $6,334. A 2 percent merit increase adds another $4,222, bringing his base salary to about $221,684. The one-time 4 percent bonus gives him an additional $8,445.
Del Mar is the smallest city in the county, with a population of about 4,200. Neighboring Solana Beach is the second smallest, with nearly 13,000 people. Its city manager is paid $207,000 annually.
Del Mar’s City Council began evaluating Huth’s 2017 performance this past October. Management Partners was hired for a not-to-exceed amount of $10,500 to help conduct a “360 evaluation.” The consulting firm also held individual interviews and a group discussion with Huth and council members.
Council members also met in closed session several times to discuss his performance.
“Through this effort, the City Council concluded that the City Manager’s overall performance for 2017 was good,” the staff report states.
Huth’s current contract, which expires in December, was extended until February 2020.
Haviland said because the process is a confidential human resources issue, the public and council members were “looking at different pieces of information.” She said she and her colleagues did identify areas where Huth needs to improve.
“Scott needs to work on his relationship with the community, but I don’t think that is the only thing that …our community is looking for,” she said. “We have a very aggressive list of priorities, things that we want to get done.
“I think we have a constituent base that wants us to get things done and we have a city manager that has proven he can do that,” Haviland added.
“We need a city manager that has a lot more communication skills,” he said. “We certainly need a city manager who can build trust with the residents. … He has not created any type of roots in the community.”