Key economic indicators since the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority was formed 2009

Population

2009: 55,753

2010: 55,144

2011: 55,041

2012: 54,339

2013: 54,118

2014: 53,887

2015: 53,709

2016: 53,804

Average size of labor force

2009: 25,720

2010: 22.620

2011: 22,730

2012: 22,320

2013: 21,750

2014: 21,630

2015: 21,580

2016: 21,640

Average personal income

2009: $35,354

2010: $35,787

2011: $36,680

2012: $41,450

2013: $42,116

2014: $27,054

2015: $41,770

2016: Not yet available

Building permits issued for housing construction (Single-family)

2009: 48

2010: 57

2011: 46

2012: 37

2013: 34

2014: 51

2015: 49

2016: 41

Building permits issued for housing construction (Multi-family)

2009: 0

2010: 0

2011: 0

2012: 0

2013: 0

2014: 4

2015: 0

2016: 0

Source: California Employment Development Department, county profiles



A Sonora man is suing the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority for refusing to release data that he believes would substantiate claims about the agency’s effectiveness.

Ken Perkins, who has publicly criticized the agency for more than a year, filed the lawsuit Monday in Tuolumne County Superior Court against the TCEDA and its chief executive officer, Larry Cope.

The lawsuit stems from a report that Cope gave to the TCEDA Board of Directors in November stating the agency had projects totaling nearly $393 million in investments and creating 2,080 jobs that pay an average wage of $20.87 per hour.

Perkins filed a formal request for information from TCEDA that would back up the numbers provided in Cope’s report, but the County Counsel’s Office denied his request under a provision of the California Public Records Act intended to protect the trade secrets of private companies.

“What I want, and I believe every citizen wants this, is transparency,” Perkins said. “This is the only way we can hold our policymakers accountable for their promises and actions.”

Cope said he had yet to see the lawsuit as of Wednesday morning and referred all questions about the lawsuit to the County Counsel’s Office, which represents the TCEDA.

This comes as both the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and Sonora City Council will consider approving annual operating budgets later this month that would provide a combined $460,000 to the TCEDA for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

The TCEDA was established under a joint-powers agreement between the city and county in 2009. Under the agreement, the authority’s budget is funded 77 percent by the county and 23 percent by the city.

The county’s share this year would be $344,292 and the city’s would be $102,841, while the remaining amount would come from grants, reimbursements and interest income.

“Folks might ask me what’s my motive,” Perkins said. “Well, one of my motives is I believe that the City of Sonora is not getting its fair and verifiable return on investment. I think they could do a lot better with $102,000.”

Perkins said he plans to make a presentation in an attempt to persuade the council at its next meeting on June 18, when its expected to consider approving the overall city budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Genesis of the dispute

While many county departments were forced to make difficult cuts last year, which included laying off three employees, the TCEDA’s budget increased nearly 12 percent to $460,000 from about $411,500 in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The increase was largely blamed on the loss of about $45,000 in annual revenue after the TCEDA withdrew from the Central Sierra Economic Development District, which Cope said previously consumed about 60 percent of his time.

Cope also received a 5-percent raise from the TCEDA board last year that boosted his annual base salary from $143,724 to $151,075, placing him among highest paid public employees in the county. That doesn’t include about $60,000 a year in health and retirement contributions.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer has praised Cope’s salary as the “best investment” that the county makes each year.

In April 2017, the Sonora City Council was advised by City Administrator Tim Miller to maintain the same level of funding for the TCEDA’s budget as the 2016-17 fiscal year because he believed the increases weren’t sustainable.

The TCEDA’s budget has nearly doubled since its inception in the 2009-10 fiscal year, when it was about $231,700. Cope’s base salary has also increased more than 61 percent from $93,594 in that first year of operation.

The council voted 3-2 to approve the TCEDA’s requested budget last year, with Mayor Connie Williams and Councilman Mark Plummer voting against it.

Williams, who serves on the TCEDA board, voted against the budget at the time because she didn’t believe it included Cope’s $6,000 car allowance. Plummer said he was concerned about the cost based on Miller’s recommendation.

In addition to Williams, the other six voting members of the TCEDA board are District 4 Supervisor John Gray, District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, Councilman George Segarini, and businessmen Dave Thoeny, Barry Hillman and attorney Jim Gianelli.

Several high-profile elected officials and business leaders heaped praise on Cope and supported the TCEDA’s budget increase when the council was considering it last year, including District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt and Sonora Armory developer Doug Kennedy.

A number of people again urged the council to tentatively approve the TCEDA’s budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year at a meeting on April 2, including County Administrator Craig Pedro on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, Ron Kopf, executive director of the Tuolumne County Business Council, and Aaron Socey, project manager at Sierra Pacific Industries.

Though the vote to tentatively approve the budget this year was unanimous, Plummer said he wanted Cope to provide measurable outcomes of the authority’s efforts in the future. Cope responded that the measurable outcomes are determined by the TCEDA board and that it was difficult to measure the agency’s influence.

Cope had told the council at a meeting the previous year that the city had seen a return of $10 million and the creation of hundreds of jobs through TCEDA’s work on projects with businesses in the city over the years, which is also questioned in Perkins’ lawsuit.

Perkins turns up heat

After the budget was approved last year, Perkins began a letter-writing campaign in The Union Democrat attempting to draw attention to his concerns about the lack of verifiable information on the authorities effectiveness.

Perkins said he believed that the widespread support for Cope in the county’s business community and political establishment was thanks to the relationships he’s built over the past eight-plus years, though he doubted they would accept a lack of measurable outcomes in their own businesses.

“Sometimes having someone like me that rocks the boat can affect the majority view,” Perkins said. “I'm hoping to liberate people's thinking about the value of performance rather than just actions taken, like how many phone calls one makes or meetings attended.”

Perkins is married to Bev Shane, who retired as the county’s Community Resources Agency in early 2017, though he said she’s not had any involvement in his dispute with the TCEDA over the past couple years.

Except for a stint as the county’s environmental health director from 1985 to 1991, Perkins primarily spent most of his career in the private sector working as the head of environmental affairs for companies like Foster Farms, Shaklee Corporation and laser-manufacturer Coherent Inc.

“I know the techniques that governments sometimes use to either slow down or stop document disclosures,” Perkins said. “Sometimes you circle the wagons and make it difficult for an average citizen to successfully get documents.”

Perkins has hired Corona-based attorney Chad D. Morgan, whose website states he specializes in public law governing interactions between public agencies and private individuals or businesses.

The main reason that Perkins believes the TCEDA is blocking the release of the data he’s requested is because it simply doesn’t have it.

Perkins cited economic indicators tracked by the California Employment Development Department that have remained mostly flat in the county since 2009, such as population, labor force numbers, average annual personal income, and the number of building permits issued for single-family and multi-family housing.

TCEDA’s response

Cope and Gray, who serves as board chairman of the TCEDA, declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred questions to Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl.

Minutes from a TCEDA meeting on Nov. 9, 2017, stated that former Sonora Mayor Hank Russell inquired about the board’s response to a series of Letters to the Editor by Perkins published in The Union Democrat that were critical of the agency, though Gray told him he would talk to him about it privately.

Gray said he couldn’t recall exactly what he told Russell, though he didn’t believe the board ever made a formal decision on how to handle the letters.

“The issue with Mr. Perkins is that we felt we are doing what we’re supposed to do and that’s pretty much it,” he said. “How do you answer something like that? It’s like throwing stuff on the wall … We pretty much just listened to it and read it like everybody else.”

The minutes from the November meeting also stated that Perkins declined invitations to meet with Pedro and board members, though he said the only person who reached out to him was Pedro and they ultimately didn’t meet due to scheduling conflicts.

Perkins also said he didn’t believe a meeting between the two would resolve much because all he wants is the data that he requested.

Drivdahl said she’s seen a copy of the lawsuit, but she hasn’t had a chance to fully evaluate it yet.

“Mr. Perkins has made numerous Public Records Act requests that we’ve responded to, this is only one of them,” she said. “From the (TCEDA’s) perspective, we’ve provided all of the documents he’s requested that were public record and we’ve complied with the Public Records Act.”

In a response to Perkins dated May 14, Drivdahl stated that the data he was requesting was protected from disclosure under the Public Records Act because private businesses work with the TCEDA under the expectation that information about their future plans and struggles would remain private.

Drivdahl stated that economic development efforts would be crippled if the companies stopped working with the TCEDA out of concern that their information wouldn’t be confidential.

“Publicly releasing this information would jeopardize these companies’ commercial position and could result in competitive harm,” she stated in the letter to Perkins denying his request. “Removing business names from the data does not resolve the concerns.”

Perkins said the lawsuit was assigned to Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Kevin Seibert. The court’s computer system stated the first hearing was scheduled to take place on Oct. 12.

The TCEDA board holds meetings on a quarterly basis and is next scheduled to meet on Sept. 14.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.



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