DEL MAR — The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is conducting a criminal investigation for misdemeanor larceny charges associated with the August firing of Pat Vergne, the city’s longtime chief lifeguard and community services director.
“Charges might be changed and/or additional charges may be added as the investigation continues,” Lt. Karen Stubkjaer stated in response to an email requesting details. “This is all the information I have at this time.”
Vergne was terminated last summer after a four-month investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct and misuse of public funds. According to the latter charge, Vergne and an employee waived or discounted facility use fees totaling more than $150,000 between 2015 and 2017.
Vergne said he believes he had the discretion to do so because it was something he had done for years without ever being told not to by any supervisor past or present.
“I managed that facility for 17 years and not at any one time did the city manager approach me with concerns or I would immediately have addressed the concerns and changed,” Vergne said. “It’s not like the books were being hidden. They had access to everything.”
Some residents said they held events at places such as Powerhouse Community Center because they won free use of the facility in charity auctions.
A sheriff detective began calling Del Marians the first week of January asking questions about parking passes and facility rentals purchased at fundraisers.
“It really threw me off,” Zelda Waxenberg told council members at the Dec. 8 meeting. “I knew nothing about it and didn’t understand.
“I thought it was a scam,” she added. “I did not want to meet with him. … I just found the whole thing very disturbing that there’s these things going on with the city that are not upfront, open and clear.”
Waxenberg said the detective told her the investigation was ordered by the city, a claim Mayor Dwight Worden denies.
“Yes, the sheriff did call some people,” he said. “The city did not ask the sheriff to make those phone calls. That’s something that the sheriff’s doing on their own.”
When asked who order the investigation, Stubkjaer stated, “We are not aware of that information at this time.”
She also could not say where the department got the list of people to contact or who specifically would be questioned.
Evidence collected during last year’s investigation, which included a long list of people who had rented city facilities, was turned over to Sheriff’s Department for further review.
“It involved a misuse of public funds and we have an obligation to send it to the Sheriff’s Department instead of handling it internally,” Del Mar City Attorney Leslie Devaney said at the time. “They’ll make a determination to move forward and include the (district attorney).
“That’s their decision,” she added. “But when you uncover something internally of that magnitude, there’s an obligation to turn it over because it’s the public’s money.”
Many residents are claiming current City Manager Scott Huth, who fired Vergne, is to blame, saying he was derelict in his duties because a 2009 ordinance specifically requires final approval by the city manager for all facility rental contracts.
“Scott Huth never properly carried out his duties in that regard,” Pam Slater-Price, a Del Mar resident and former county supervisor, said. “Had he done so, the situation never would have occurred.”
Slater-Price also faulted council members for not properly supervising the Huth.
“In my 21 years in Del Mar I’ve never seen such a poorly run city government,” she said. “I think the City Council, as well as the city manager and city attorney, are in for a long, losing and expensive battle because of your collective gross mismanagement.”
Former Mayor Gay Hugo-Martinez agreed.
“If this city manager had done his job … you wouldn’t be facing a $5 million lawsuit,” she said.
Last month Vergne filed a claim for damages in excess of $5 million, accusing all five City Council members and Huth of defamation, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy and wrongful termination.
Huth said despite the language of the ordinance, people are reading and interpreting the code incorrectly. He said allowing a department head, such as Vergne, to act as a signatory is common in most cities and was the practice in Del Mar long before he joined the city.
“Using a designee is how we deal with a lot of stuff,” he said. “It has to do with the day-to-day operation of the city.”
Huth said requiring him to sign off on every event, including “Johnny’s 8th birthday at the beach for 25 people,” would have him in the office doing paperwork all day and would not be the best use of city funds.
“We haven’t changed the language because that’s not how we operate,” he added. “The council hasn’t said change it because they read it the same way as I do.”
Richard Earnest and Don Mosier, who were councilmen when the ordinance was adopted, couldn’t remember why the specific language was used.
“My recollection was that there was already a concern that fees were being waived for certain residents, but not all, but I do not recall how that concern translated into the adopted ordinance,” Mosier said.
Former City Manager Karen Brust did not respond to a request for comment.
Many residents, including Waxenberg and Slater-Price’s husband Hershell Price, urged council members to tell the Sheriff’s Department to end the investigation.
“Is jail or prison Del Mar’s plan for Pat Vergne?” Price asked. “Is this the punishment you feel is needed for Pat Vergne? If not, this entire investigation should be immediately called off.”
Misdemeanors are generally punishable by fines and possibly less than one year in county jail.