While the leaders of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority have yet to address some of the recent controversies surrounding the agency, the Sonora City Council is getting pressure from constituents to take action.
Ken Perkins, a Sonora resident who’s suing the TCEDA over transparency, urged the council at a public meeting on Monday to start holding talks about the possibility of splitting from the joint-power authority formed in partnership with the county in 2008.
“When is enough, enough?,” he asked the council. “Ask yourself, have you been given enough information about who’s worth keeping and who’s worth letting go? You did your part as a council, now it’s time to start looking forward to the future and being done with the past.”
Perkins has been on a mission for more than a year to bring attention to what he believes are fundamental issues with the TCEDA and how it does business, particularly when it comes to tracking the performance of its executive director, Larry Cope.
The lawsuit against Cope was filed by Perkins on June 11 in Tuolumne County Superior Court after he was denied data he requested to support claims that the agency involvement with nearly $400 million in capital investments would create more than 2,000 jobs at an average wage of more than $20 per hour.
County attorneys, whom the TCEDA Board of Directors authorized to represent the agency in the lawsuit, have maintained that the information requested by Perkins can be withheld under a provision of the California Public Records Act meant to protect the trade secrets of private companies, and that doing so would deter companies from working with the agency in the future.
A hearing in Tuolumne County Superior Court for a judge to determine whether information should be handed over to Perkins is scheduled for Oct. 12.
Perkins also talked about the impending closure of the InnovationLab, a project overseen by the TCEDA for the past four years that’s often cited among the agency’s accomplishments.
The InnovationLab, located on the third floor of the county-owned former Tuolumne General Hospital building, opened in August 2014 with the help of a $22,000 grant from the Sonora Area Foundation to purchase equipment such as 3D printers, a CNC mill, computers and other tools for a modern “maker space” that was originally part of the lab’s offerings for a monthly membership fee.
After about two years of struggling to get enough members, the focus of the lab shifted to providing low-cost office space for businesses, nonprofits and the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office.
Now, the county wants the space back for departments that are currently housed in facilities rented by the county. Deputy County Administrator Daniel Richardson estimated the move could save as much as $40,000 per year.
Perkins specifically cited an article in Saturday’s edition of The Union Democrat that included quotes from members of a former artist collective who were recruited to help develop the maker space at the lab and felt like they were pushed out by Cope before the doors opened.
“You would think that, OK, these are allegations right? This actually happened to me in 2017,” he said. “I provided an application to the InnovationLab and was sent down a bureaucratic pathway that no citizen could possibly comply with.”
Perkins said he ultimately didn’t get a membership to the lab after about a month of trying, but he was able to tour the facility in that time and didn’t see any of the equipment that was purchased with the $22,000 grant.
He also refuted a statement made in a recent guest opinion by Jim Gianelli, an attorney in Sonora and TCEDA board member, that the authority’s board had invited Perkins to meet with them and discuss his concerns.
The Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury’s annual report released in late June also detailed an investigation of the TCEDA that alleged a lack of transparency and proper oversight of the agency.
City resident Barbara Dresslar, another vocal critic of the TCEDA as of late, addressed the council prior to Perkins on Monday and advocated for getting tougher on the agency and looking into the grand jury’s findings before agreeing to spend any taxpayer money defending it in court.
“If Larry Cope won’t tell us what he’s done, how and why do we defend him?” she asked.
Councilwoman Connie Williams asked city staff to put a discussion on the council’s next meeting agenda about the grand jury report and other issues surrounding the TCEDA.
Williams has served on the TCEDA board for the past several years and, at times, has expressed being told essentially the same thing as Perkins when she’s asked for information to effectively gauge the agency’s performance.
City Administrator Tim Miller said he already planned for the council to discuss the city’s responses to the grand jury report at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 6.
All agencies investigated by the jury are required to submit responses to the report’s findings and recommendations, which includes the city as a partner in the TCEDA that pays for 23 percent of the organization’s annual budget.
Mayor Jim Garaventa said in an interview after the meeting that he plans to replace former Councilman George Segarini as one of the city’s two representatives on the TCEDA board.
“I feel it’s my job as a council member to provide oversight on whatever I’m assigned to, or make changes if needed, and that’s what I intend to do,” he said of why he wants to serve on the TCEDA board.
The next regularly scheduled TCEDA board meeting isn’t until Sept. 14, though Garaventa said he’s been told that a special meeting is being planned for early August.
Garaventa said he felt it would be premature to consider backing out of the joint-powers agreement with the county that established the TCEDA before getting a chance to examine all of the facts, though he’s concerned about what he’s heard up to this point.
That’s in contrast with county Supervisors Karl Rodefer, Randy Hanvelt and Evan Royce, all of whom have defended Cope and the TCEDA’s work.
Supervisors Sherri Brennan and John Gray have yet to weigh-in on the matter publicly because they currently serve on the TCEDA board and first want to go through the process of responding to the grand jury’s report.
Garaventa said the agreement allows the city and county to mutually dissolve the agency or one has to give notice to the other about pulling out of the JPA six months before the start of the next fiscal year.
That would give the council until Dec. 31 to decide what it wants to do moving forward.
Councilwoman Colette Such, who was seated July 2 after winning in the June 5 primary election, said she looks forward to a deeper discussion about the recent matters involving the TCEDA and would support a way to speed up that process.
Councilman Mark Plummer said he believes everyone involved with the TCEDA wants the best for the county, but he had concerns about the issue becoming more focused on Cope as a person rather than his performance on economic development.
Councilman Matt Hawkins, who has managed restaurants and grocery stores, said he hires and fires people based on ability as opposed to friendship. However, he said he believes it would be “ill advised” to talk about leaving the JPA at this point.
“We want as much cooperation with Tuolumne County as we can,” Hawkins said. “Whatever is done with the EDA needs to be just and fair. We need to look through everything thoroughly.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.