Local business owners came to the defense of the Tuolumne Economic Development Authority’s executive director at a special meeting Wednesday night that was called by the agency’s governing board to address a scathing Grand Jury report for the first time.

At least 90 people attended the meeting that was held in the county Board of Supervisors chambers, as opposed to a much smaller conference room at the TCEDA’s headquarters where meetings are typically held.

The move was in anticipation of a larger turnout than normal because of the controversy surrounding the agency since the jury’s report was released in June.

The report’s findings painted a picture of an agency that, among other things, lacked effective oversight and wasn’t being managed in a way typical of entities that are funded by taxpayer dollars.

Fifteen people relayed their personal experiences with Larry Cope, who has headed the agency since its inception in 2008, and effusively praised him for the ways in which he has provided assistance to their business or nonprofit.

Julia Rhodes, a former teacher who owns a company in the county that manufactures dry-erase products, said she was struggling to understand the ins and outs of business before the agency was created.

Rhodes said after the meeting that she and other business owners would likely leave the county if they no longer had an advocate like Cope.

David Morgan, of Sonora, found the testimonials about Cope to be a distraction from the purpose of the meeting — to look at the apparent issues that were reported by the jury.

“It seems there is kind of a cult of personality here about Larry Cope,” he said. “I’m hoping we can focus on the TCEDA and not the person, because he might not always be there.”

Ten other people who spoke at the meeting were also critical of the agency based on what the jury reported and demanded the board take action to correct the issues.

Sonora activist Elizabeth Harper referred to the agency’s $460,000 annual budget, 77 percent of which is funded by the county and 23 percent by the city, as “lavish” compared to other departments in the county that have suffered cutbacks for years.

Harper concluded her statements calling for the agency to be disbanded.

Prior to asking for public comment, the TCEDA board went over the proposed responses to the jury’s findings and recommendations that were presented by Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl, who serves as the agency’s legal adviser.

The responses were still in the draft stage and won’t be formally approved until the TCEDA board members have time to provide any changes at their next meeting, which is currently scheduled for Sept. 14.

According to the proposed responses, the board would agree that businesses have an inconsistent awareness of the agency’s existence and that its policy on entertaining clients is loosely interpreted beyond the original intent.

The jury reported that more than half of the meals purchased using the agency’s entertainment budget, which is intended for prospective clients, appeared to have been spent on wining and dining public officials and members of the TCEDA board themselves.

“The TCEDA Board fully agrees that it can and should better define terms it uses, such as partners, prospects and clients so it is clear to all when establishing goals and reporting on the same,” the proposed response stated.

Most of the other proposed responses agreed or disagreed only in part with the jury’s findings, including that TCEDA board members and Cope appear to be in conflict of interest because they serve on multiple interrelated boards.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, an alternate on the TCEDA board who stood in for District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan because she couldn’t attend, said he assumed that all of the board members had been vetted for conflicts of interest and asked Drivdahl if that was true.

Drivdahl replied she was looking into that as part of a wider review of the agency.

One of the more talked about findings from those critical of the TCEDA was that Cope’s vacation policy allowed him to cash out 720 hours of vacation time and used a total of 120 hours from 2015 to 2017.

According to the TCEDA board’s proposed response, Cope belongs to the labor union representing county executives that has an agreement allowing for its members to cash out up to 200 hours of leave each year as long as the member would have at least 80 hours remaining, with the exception of “extraordinary circumstances” that must be approved by the TCEDA approved.

The proposed response stated that prior approval for the cash-out in excess of 200 hours was sought and granted in Cope’s case.

Larry Beil, a retired county employee, pointed out that the agreement also requires the employee to have used at least 80 hours within the last year in order to be approved for a cash-out and argued that Cope should have to pay the county back because he only used 120 hours over a three-year period.

The jury also reported that Cope had been in England from Sept. 11, 2017, to Oct. 9, 2017, but only listed four of the days as vacation and the rest as comp time or remote working.

While the proposed response to the finding acknowledged the listing of comp time was an “inadvertent error,” it also listed 21 tasks Cope had performed while out of the country that included corresponding with clients, updating the website, and working on other projects related to economic development.

“I believe it is important that, when possible, everyone takes a vacation and some time off,” said District 4 Supervisor John Gray, who serves as chairman of TCEDA board. “As you can see from Ms. Drivdahl’s response, Mr. Cope has a difficult task that doesn’t stop because he’s not there.”

Matt Hawkins, a Sonora City Councilman who recently replaced Councilwoman Connie Williams on the TCEDA board, asked Cope how many hours he works per week.

Cope said he worked “probably 80 hours a week” during the 2013 Rim Fire and while simultaneously running the Central Sierra Economic Development District, though he currently is working “somewhere around 75 hours a week” because his former office assistant recently quit.

The proposed responses stated that the jury’s recommendation for the TCEDA to obtain certification from the California Joint Powers Association will not be implemented because doing so would require an annual independent audit that could cost as much as $10,000 per year. It also stated the county Auditor-Controller’s Office already conducts an annual audit of the agency.

Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista, however, clarified that her office does an audit of all transactions that occur throughout the entire county government but has never conducted a “full-fledged independent audit” of the TCEDA’s books.

Several people supported the idea of investing in an annual independent audit of the agency to improve the public’s perception of it. Rodefer recommended discussing the issue further at a strategic planning session that the board is planning to hold at a still yet-to-be-determined date.

One of the proposed responses disagreed with the jury’s finding that the TCEDA’s refusal to disclose information on interactions with private businesses could be a violation of the Brown Act, the state law guaranteeing access to meetings of local governing bodies.

The jury reported that the agency wouldn’t disclose information to support claims that it was involved with nearly $400 million in capital investment projects that would create more than 2,000 jobs at an average wage of $20 an hour.

Gary Dambacher, a local attorney, said he’s referred clients to Cope over the years and has found that his clients want their information to remain confidential.

“In my view, confidentiality is the cornerstone of economic development and that’s why confidentiality is so crucial to the work that Larry does,” he said, before praising Cope’s performance.

Marvin Keshner, of Sonora, said he understood the need for keeping clients’ future plans under wraps, but he believed there shouldn’t be a reason to withhold information about assistance that has already been provided.

Keshner worked as an executive at tech-industry giant Hewlett-Packard for 25 years and said his former company would have been “delighted” to disclose how many jobs they were creating in a given area.

The issue over the agency’s refusal to disclose detailed information about the work it has completed over the years is at the center of a pending lawsuit filed by Sonora resident Ken Perkins, who spoke at the meeting on Wednesday.

Perkins said the county should not conduct an audit until his lawsuit is over and vowed that he wouldn’t settle unless the county provides the information he requested, or acknowledged that it doesn’t exist.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in Tuolumne County Superior Court on Nov. 16.

Earlier in the meeting, the board also voted 6-0-1 to approve a plan for giving away the remaining equipment at the TCEDA’s InnovationLab that’s scheduled to close later this month four years after it opened.

Rodefer recused himself from the discussion because his wife, Jo Rodefer, serves on the governing board for Columbia Union School District, which requested the equipment because it plans to open a technology lab that would be open to the public at certain times.

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