Sonora City Council Monday directed the city administrator to draft a document to formally ask the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors for more time to decide whether to halt the city’s involvement in the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.
City Council members said they want to review the findings of a management audit now under way but not expected to be completed before sometime early next year.
According to the agreement that created TCEDA, the city must notify the county 180 days before the start of the next fiscal year. That would be Dec. 31.
The council also asked City Administrator Tim Miller to come up with some options on how the city can handle economic development on its own should they nix the agreement.
Both items will be considered at the council’s next meeting, Dec. 3.
Former city council member George Segarini, who served for many years on the TCEDA board, told the council he believed the county would agree to a shorter notice.
When Miller was asked whether anyone from the county had expressed a willingness to do so, he said he had not heard from any supervisors.
Mayor Jim Garaventa said he believed it was essential for the council to have the information from the audit before making a decision as did council member Matt Hawkins, who called the situation unfortunate and added it had kept him up for two nights.
Council member Colette Such was more strident in her criticisms of the TCEDA board, whose chairman John Gray is also a county supervisor.
She called the TCEDA board defensive and tone deaf to the city’s concerns and criticized the increases in salary and cost of the agency over the nine years it has existed.
The TCEDA’s annual budget has almost doubled from $232,000 in 2009, while TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope’s annual base salary has increased from about $93,600 to about $163,000.
“This is a poor county,” Such said, noting that before she was a council member she watched the council struggle to come up with $35,000 for a school resource officer. The city paid $103,000 this year toward the agency’s $460,000 budget.
Such also criticized the TCEDA board for wanting to select two businessmen to fill open seats, rather than considering a female businesswoman who is involved in the arts and favored by the city’s representatives.
“Arts matter,” Such said, and later added. “I can’t do it (stay in the TCEDA) if the tone doesn’t change and the makeup of the board doesn’t change.”
Council member Mark Plummer said the idea of the city and county working together is a good one, but he is concerned that the city has contributed money for years and no one can give them solid numbers on return on investment.
The city has paid $760,000 for TCEDA since 2009.
Council member Connie Williams was first to express her opinion on Monday night, saying she supported asking the county for an extension, but also wanted to hear from staff about how they could do economic development in house.
Two residents spoke to the council in favor of the city handling economic development on its own.
Ken Perkins, who sued the TCEDA for documents proving the agency’s claims of helping bring in millions of dollars in investment, said, “What other information could you possibly need” before making a decision to go it alone.
“This is about efficiency of city and county government,” he said.
Diana Cooper, who has worked in small business development and teaches at Columbia College, said Kings County in some ways is comparable to Tuolumne County and they just landed an electric car plant.
“Why can’t that be here,” she said. Retail jobs don’t pay a living wage, she added.
She also said Cope’s salary is one of the highest in the state.
“You can find that out,” she said. “You’re the City Council.”
The management audit and a financial audit are being done at the behest of the Tuolumne County Grand Jury, which earlier this year raised concerns about the way money was spent at TCEDA and whether the public agency — and its director — was transparent in detailing its work.
The jury questioned whether the TCEDA board provided the necessary oversight and found Cope was allowed to sign his own expense reports, claim all but four days as work time while he was in England for a month last year, cash out 720 hours of vacation time from 2015 to 2017, and spend more than half of the TCEDA’s meal expenses in 2017 on board members, elected county supervisors and government employees.
The council’s next meeting is 5 p.m. Dec. 3 in City Hall.
Alex MacLean contributed to this story.