City of Sonora elected officials on Monday sent an ultimatum to their counterparts in the Tuolumne County government — give us more time to decide whether we will remain part of the Tuolumne County Economic Development, or we’re out.
The Sonora City Council voted 5-0 to approve a resolution asking for an additional 90 days beyond the current deadline of Dec. 31. If the county Board of Supervisors doesn’t approve the request by the end of the year, the resolution will automatically end the city’s participation in the TCEDA moving forward.
“I think it would be foolish for the county not allow us to have the time,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Matt Hawkins, who has served as one of the council’s two representatives on the TCEDA board since August.
It will now be up to the county Board of Supervisors to decide whether it wants to continue partnering with the city on the task of economic development, something that began in 2008 with a joint powers agreement between the two governments.
The decision will also cap off a turbulent year for the TCEDA and its governing board. In June, the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury identified concerns related to transparency, accountability and uses of public funds.
One of the main reasons the council wants more time to make a decision is to see the results of financial and management audits, both of which stemmed from recommendations in the jury’s report.
City officials say the financial audit is expected to be completed by the end of the year, but the management audit won’t be done until sometime in January.
Hawkins agreed with a point made by Councilwoman Connie Williams about how she felt like the city was treated like more of a “stepchild” as opposed to true partner when she served on the TCEDA board from July 2016 to July of this year.
“At our last board meeting, I quite frankly felt like we were just pushed aside and some things were just bulldozed through,” Hawkins said. “I also felt that some members of the public weren’t treated the way they should have been treated.”
Hawkins and Mayor Jim Garaventa, who has also served as a city representative on the TCEDA board since August, initially wanted to hold interviews with candidates for two open at-large positions. However, they ultimately agreed to appoint to Ron Patel, former CEO of Black Oak Resort, to one of them.
Williams said she expressed many similar concerns that were reported by the grand jury during her time on the TCEDA board, including conflicts of interest, lax financial oversight, and a lack of measures to gauge the agency’s return on investment to the city and county.
“The biggest thing is we asked employees in our departments to make cuts so we would have a balanced budget, but there was never ever any request for the EDA to cut their budget,” she said.
The TCEDA’s annual budget has been about about $460,000 for the past two fiscal years, with the city covering about $103,000 and the county funding most of the rest.
Under the terms of the 2008 joint powers agreement, the city’s share of the funding is 23 percent and county’s is 77 percent.
Williams also asked Garaventa at Monday’s meeting to clarify a statement he made about “animosity” driven by a clash of personalities has contributed to many of the TCEDA’s woes as of late.
“I’m not sure of the exact dictionary definition of animosity, but what it means to me is there has been a lot of discord and personality-driven issues across the board,” he said. “Between board members, elected city and county representatives, some of the staff — it’s just there’s a lot of personality-driven discord in the last few months. I don’t really know how to explain it better than that.”
Garaventa expressed a desire for the council to wait on the results of the audits and see how the TCEDA board responds to them before deciding whether to remain part of the agency.
Councilman Mark Plummer, however, questioned whether the management audit in particular will change much.
“The attitude of both the county and EDA seems to be pretty much to put it off as far as possible … It seems like an attempt to force the city to make a decision (without the results of the audit),” he said. “I think one of the questions we have to ask ourselves seriously is: Are they really going to make it a performance-based organization?”
Councilwoman Colette Such asked whether the city would be responsible for paying TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope’s salary for an additional three months if it were granted the deadline extension and chose to leave the organization at the end of March.
Cope is entitled to six months severance pay under the terms of his employment agreement. He makes about $163,000 a year, making him one of the highest paid public employees in the county and highest paid economic development directors in the state of California.
City Attorney Douglas White said there’s a variety of factors to consider, such as if the county would assume his contract and essentially make him solely a county employee, though he felt it would be more appropriate to discuss that in closed session as a personnel matter.
After the vote on the resolution, City Administrator Tim Miller presented information and took direction from the council about some possible options for economic development efforts if the city leaves the TCEDA.
Miller said measures to gauge if economic development efforts are paying off should look at improvements in the economy as a whole, as opposed to specific businesses in the community.
“One could be increases in sales tax, or increases in visitor spending, or TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax), additional construction in certain industries, number of building permits, number of jobs,” he said. “There’s a whole array of different measures, none of which are confidential.”
The first thing Miller said the council should look at doing if it decides to branch out on its own should be developing a strategic action, which he estimated could be done for roughly $40,000 with the help of an outside consultant.
In the end, the council agreed that the city should come up with its own specific goals – regardless of whether it stays in the TCEDA.
Marianne Wright, a Sonora native and longtime city merchant, said she’s received help from Cope in the past and urged the council to have a plan in place before deciding to leave the TCEDA.
Wright is one of three people who have applied for the final remaining at-large TCEDA board position, which has yet to be decided. If the city stays part of the organization, she said the city representatives should be assertive and stand their ground moving forward.
Howard White expressed similar sentiment as Wright. He’s a member of the Modesto-based Valley Sierra Small Business Development Center, which received a $10,000 contract earlier this year from the TCEDA to do outside consulting services to businesses in downtown districts throughout the county.
Ken Perkins, of Sonora, has called upon the council to cut its ties with the TCEDA before the end of the year but told the members he felt they showed “tremendous leadership” at the meeting on Monday.
Perkins recently settled a lawsuit he filed against the TCEDA and Cope that resulted in the release of several redacted documents showing the estimated amount of capital investment and jobs created from businesses that received assistance from the agency.
“It’s almost like a genesis is happening,” he said. “I’ve always said you should take the ball and run with it, and you’ve demonstrated you can do that in spades.”
Also at the meeting, the council introduced an ordinance that would allow microbreweries in nonresidential zoning districts within the city.
The ordinance stems from a request for a use permit by Thomas Silva, a 35-year-old Sonora native and businessman who recently purchased the Lighthouse Deli and wants to add a microbrewery to the business.
A public hearing is scheduled on Dec. 10 for the Sonora Planning Commission decide on whether to approve Silva’s permit. The council will consider final approval of the microbrewery ordinance on Dec. 17.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.