The Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority has scheduled a special public meeting next month to talk about recent issues that have put the agency in the spotlight.
Topics on the agenda for the meeting, which beings at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 8, include a discussion on responses to the annual Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury report that was released June 29, as well as the closure of the InnovationLab and what to do with the lab’s equipment.
Although the TCEDA Governing Board normally meets in a small room at the agency’s office on North Washington Street, the special meeting will be held in the much larger Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors’ chambers on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center at 2 S. Washington St.
District 4 Supervisor John Gray, chairman of the TCEDA board, said they welcome public input as they always have at past meetings, though public participation is typically low.
“It’s disappointing that at past (TCEDA) board meetings we have had very few public participants, and that includes the press,” Gray said.
At the end of the public meeting, the TCEDA Governing Board will adjourn into closed session to privately discuss a lawsuit filed by Sonora resident Ken Perkins over the agency’s refusal to release public records he requested.
Perkins filed the lawsuit on June 11 in Tuolumne County Superior Court against the TCEDA and its executive director, Larry Cope, who could not be reached for comment in time for this story.
The lawsuit alleges that the TCEDA and Cope violated the California Public Records Act by denying his request for data related to the agency’s performance, specifically a report in November that stated the agency was assisting with nearly $400 million in investments creating 2,000-plus jobs at an average wage of $20 per hour.
In defending the TCEDA, the County Counsel’s Office cited a provision in the law intended to prevent certain records from being released to the public if they would reveal the proprietary information and trade secrets of private companies.
Meanwhile, the grand jury sought similar information for its investigation of the TCEDA but ran into the same roadblock.
The jury stated in its report that the TCEDA’s private interactions with businesses that aren’t discussed at public meetings doesn’t allow for independent oversight and could be a violation of the Brown Act, the state law guaranteeing public access to meetings of governing bodies.
Gray downplayed the findings in the report as “pretty simple to answer.”
“The important question is are we doing a good job? All you have to do is talk with the people who have worked with Larry on specific projects over the years,” Gray said. “That’s where I want to put my energy — how good of a job are we doing?”
At the Aug. 8 special meeting, there will also be a discussion about hiring a facilitator for a strategic planning session to take a deeper look at how the organization is doing and identify any room for improvement.
Gray said the last time the TCEDA board held a similar session was around the time of the agency’s formation in 2008 at Camp Tuolumne Trails in Groveland, which was founded by Jerry Baker, who serves as the District 4 representative on the county Planning Commission.
Gray said they will likely look for a location closer to Sonora for the upcoming strategic planning session. He also noted the board had discussed the possibility of holding such a workshop at meetings prior to the release of the grand jury report and Perkins’ lawsuit.
“If there are some places to improve, then we want to improve those things,” Gray said. “Things change, so something that was working eight or nine years ago might need to be tweaked now.”
As for the discussion about the InnovationLab’s closure, Gray said his hope is that whatever equipment is left will get in the hands of local schools and educators.
The InnovationLab was a project spearheaded by the TCEDA that opened in 2014 on the third floor of the former Tuolumne General Hospital at 101 Hospital Road in Sonora.
The idea behind the project was to create one of the first rural maker spaces that would have cutting-edge fabrication and prototyping equipment, which people would be able to use for a monthly membership fee.
After being unable to attract enough members, the membership model was scrapped and the InnovationLab became office space for businesses, nonprofits and the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office.
Cope announced on July 13 that the InnovationLab would be close by Aug. 15 because the county, which owns the old hospital building and rents the third floor to the TCEDA for $6,000 a year, decided it wants to use the space.
Also at the special meeting, the TCEDA board will consider selecting a new vice chairperson following the departure of George Segarini, a former member of the Sonora City Council.
Mayor Jim Garaventa said he plans to replace Segarini as a member of the TCEDA board.
Other members of the TCEDA board are District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, Councilwoman Connie Williams, Barry Hillman, president of HealthLitNow, Dave Thoeny, executive director of Mother Lode Job Training, and attorney Jim Gianelli.
The TCEDA is a joint-powers authority formed through a partnership between the county and City of Sonora. The county pays 77 percent of the agency’s annual budget, while the city covers the remaining 23 percent.
The agency’s annual budget is about $460,000.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.