A Sonora man’s monthslong legal battle with the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority appears to be nearing an end.

Ken Perkins says he’s negotiating with the TCEDA’s attorneys on a settlement to the lawsuit he filed on June 11 in Tuolumne County Superior Court against the agency and its executive director, Larry Cope.

In the lawsuit, Perkins challenged the TCEDA’s denial of a request he made for records on assistance the agency has provided to businesses over the years. The TCEDA has provided lists without names of the businesses helped by the agency.

Despite feeling unsatisfied with the documents provided, Perkins said he has instructed his attorney to work out a settlement with the outside law firm hired by the TCEDA to defend the agency in the lawsuit. However, he wants Cope to sign a statement admitting that more detailed documentation doesn’t exist.

“The last part of the lawsuit is to get some sort of written admission from Cope that these are all the documents he has that we asked for,” Perkins said. “If he does that, there’s really nothing else for us to do than cover our costs in court.”

Supervisor John Gray, who is president of the TCEDA, declined to comment. Cope could not be reached.

Perkins said his two years of activism could also be coming to a close by the end of the year.

He believes all eyes will be on the Sonora City Council in the coming months, which must notify the county by Dec. 31 if it plans to stop funding the TCEDA in the next fiscal year.

Several council members have expressed their own concerns about the agency and public perception surrounding it.

At a special meeting on Monday, the TCEDA board approved hiring an outside firm, MGO, to conduct audits of the agency’s financial records and management practices as recommended by the grand jury.

Perkins said he believes the council should vote to leave the TCEDA and start its own program to promote economic development within the three-square-mile city limits, regardless of the outcome of the audits.

The city gives about $103,000 a year to the TCEDA from its General Fund, the city’s main operating account that pays for services such as police, fire protection, public works, administration and employee salaries.

“I think the city could do their own economic development at a lot less cost and could start solving other problems with the leftover money,” Perkins said. “It’s going to take a couple of years for the TCEDA to establish and implement new policies to regain the trust of the community.

“I would ask the city, do you want to pay $103,000 a year while they get their act together? Especially if it’s the same board members, because they’re the ones who created this mess.”

Perkins said this is the first time a local issue has driven him to become an activist.

He served as the county environmental health director from 1985 to 1991 and spent much of his career after that in the private sector working as the head of environmental affairs for companies like Foster Farms, Shaklee Corporation and laser-manufacturer Coherent Inc.

His wife is former county Community Resources Agency Director Bev Shane, who retired at the beginning of last year, though he said she’s had no involvement in his efforts related to the TCEDA.

Perkins said he hopes others will speak out more on issues regarding local government.

“It’s exhausting, but it’s a great investment and does pay dividends,” he said. “I hope that citizens will pay closer attention to these local issues and at least write letters to their local policymakers telling them how they feel, and not just sit on the sidelines and rely on a few voices to carry the day.”

For its part, the TCEDA board has said it reached out to Perkins on several occasions to no avail before he filed the lawsuit, though he’s publicly refuted that such efforts took place.

The lawsuit served as a sort of culmination to a personal quest Perkins embarked on two years ago this month to expose what he viewed as a lack of transparency and accountability within the TCEDA.

“Here we are two years later and getting to the end,” he said.

Perkins started looking into the TCEDA in September 2016 when he saw an announcement that the Central Sierra Economic Development District, then under Cope’s leadership, was looking for public input on a five-year strategy to improve the region’s economy.

After reading through the 68-page document, Perkins submitted a detailed review and pointed out what he believed to be shortcomings. He was particularly concerned about the lack of metrics to track progress made on the goals.

The TCEDA board ultimately directed Cope to step down from his role with the CSEDD to focus on the local agency beginning in the 2017-18 fiscal year, so Perkins also shifted his focus.

“I found Larry’s five-year goals and objectives were even more nebulous, vague and even impossible to achieve,” Perkins said. “That includes the InnovationLab as well.”

Some of what he said stood out to him were goals about expanding markets for existing businesses, getting 10 businesses with 20-plus employees each to relocate to the county, and helping to increase the availability of workforce housing — something California has wrestled with for years.

Perkins began writing frequent letters to the editor last year that were published in The Union Democrat demanding more transparency from the TCEDA around the same time that the Sonora City Council and Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors approved a 25-percent increase to the combined amount they contribute to the agency’s annual budget, which went from about $411,000 to $460,000 in 2017.

Cope blamed the budget increase largely on the loss of $45,000 of revenue per year that the TCEDA received for overseeing the Central Sierra Economic Development District.

The TCEDA was created by the city and county in 2008 through a joint-powers agreement, under which the city provides about 23 percent of the agency’s annual revenue and county covers the remaining 77 percent.

Though the Sonora City Council was initially reluctant to approve the increase and delayed a vote for two weeks, the county Board of Supervisors gave swift approval.

At the time, District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer referred to Cope’s salary — about $163,000 a year and one of the highest in the county government — as the best investment made by the county each year.

Among the letters Perkins wrote to The Union Democrat were some that criticized a lack of public information about major projects like the agency’s InnovationLab.

The lab opened in 2014 with the help of a $22,000 grant the Sonora Area Foundation provided to the Economic Prosperity Council of Tuolumne County, the nonprofit arm of the TCEDA that’s overseen by the agency’s board but not associated with the county.

Perkins attempted to obtain membership to the InnovationLab last summer but said he was unable to meet a number of requirements.

“He (Cope) put one requirement in front of another to prevent me from gaining membership,” Perkins alleged, adding that his application was around the same time his letters critical of the TCEDA were being published every few weeks.

Perkins said he has requested documents about what other people were required to do to gain membership to verify whether he was treated differently, but he’s been told that such documents don’t exist.

The InnovationLab was officially shuttered by the TCEDA last month because the county needed to the space on the third floor of the former Tuolumne General Hospital building in Sonora.

The county owns the building and previously leased out the third floor to the TCEDA for about $6,000 a year, which then in turn leased space to nonprofits, start-ups and other government agencies.

In April, Perkins formally requested documents to support a claim made in Cope’s November 2017 written report to the TCEDA board that stated the agency “has projects that total $392,950,000 in investments, creating 2,080 jobs at an average rate of $20.87 per hour that we are assisting on.”

The TCEDA, through its legal adviser in the County Counsel’s Office, denied the request on the grounds that it would reveal confidential information about private companies that work with the agency, citing a provision under the California Public Records Act that exempts such information from public disclosure requirements.

That ultimately led Perkins to file the lawsuit challenging the decision. He retained the services of Corona-based attorney Chad Morgan, who specializes in public law governing interactions between government agencies and private individuals or businesses.

Less than a month after filing the lawsuit, the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released a report at the end of June detailing a monthslong investigation of the TCEDA that found similar problems regarding transparency that were raised by Perkins in his lawsuit.

The jury also reported that the measurable outcomes for the action items in the TCEDA’s five-year work plan were largely vague and lacked data to demonstrate successes.

“The timing couldn’t have been better from my perspective because it was within one month of me filing the lawsuit,” he said. “The report comes out and pretty much parallels everything I was claiming in the lawsuit.”

Perkins said he never spoke to any members of the jury during its investigation that began last fall, nor was he aware that the jury was probing the TCEDA. He believes his letters in the newspaper may have contributed to the jury’s decision to launch the investigation because he was the only one calling the agency out publicly at the time.

The TCEDA released heavily redacted documents on Aug. 17 in hopes of resolving the dispute with Perkins and settling his lawsuit, though he said at the time that they didn’t provide enough detail to fully evaluate the agency’s performance and effectiveness.

Less than two weeks later, the TCEDA released a separate list of companies that had completed projects in the county and city with the agency’s assistance.

None of the documents that were released provided information on the level of involvement the TCEDA had and types of assistance it provided on each project.

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

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