DETAILS: What was spent, where and why: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1eOFbGSAQKfyVXHFS6hEYkyeEPJ_9ru1QWULqaG9mNzs/edit?usp=sharing
The chief executive officer of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority spent just over $100,000 in 2017 and 2018 on trips to such places as Boston and Las Vegas, on meals with county officials and business prospects and various items for his agency including three Microsoft Surface tablets, a night vision camera, a drone and faux leather bar stools.
The Union Democrat review of Larry Cope’s daily calendar, expense reports and credit card bills procured through the California Public Records Act showed for those years he ate at least one — sometimes two — meals almost every weekday at taxpayer expense, most often with county officials. His non-travel meals totaled just over $11,000 during those two years.
DETAILS: What was spent, where and why: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1eOFbGSAQKfyVXHFS6hEYkyeEPJ_9ru1QWULqaG9mNzs/edit?usp=sharing
He also attended conferences geared toward biotechnology and game developers, in addition to more traditional economic development conventions. He stayed in hotels that cost more than $400 a night, including the Taj Hotel in Boston and the Inn at the Presidio in San Francisco.
On one of the two times he stayed at the Inn at the Presidio, which is located in a national park that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge, he listed the trip as regional scouting and recruitment and did not say where he went or who he met with. He did the same on trips to Monterey and Oakland.
One of the challenges in assessing whether the expenses are improving Tuolumne County’s economy is Cope has not released specifics about which companies he has helped and has said he doesn’t have a complete list. The list of companies he remembered was released last year and all of the names were redacted, making it impossible to verify.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and California Employment Development Department show declining or mostly stagnant trends in the county since 2009 for key economic indicators, including population, size of labor force, number of people employed, and building permits for housing.
Median household income and individual income has risen since the 2010 Census, but still lags behind the state as a whole and neighboring Calaveras, Amador, Alpine and Mono counties.
Cope said in emails the trips and meals were necessary to promote economic development in the county and city, which jointly fund the authority’s $460,000 a year annual budget.
“We meet with clients where and when it is convenient to them,” he stated. “This involves meeting them at trade shows, events, their business location and during breaks in their schedules like over lunch and dinner.”
Sonora City Council and county Board of Supervisors members offered mixed reviews of Cope’s spending, from defensive to outrage to hope that it was well intentioned and contributed to the authority’s core purpose.
“I think the important thing is that he (Cope) stayed within the budget that we gave him,” said County Supervisor John Gray, chairman of the TCEDA Governing Board. “You hire people and trust they’ll do their job properly. You watch them through the budget process. I don’t know every nut and screw the county is buying."
City Councilwoman Colette Such said, "If all of these expenses are within his budget, then that means the budget is too high. Falling within his budget isn't good enough."
Cope is paid $163,625 a year, plus $8,400 in stipends for a car and a cell phone, making him one of the highest paid government employees. He has been economic development director since shortly after the authority was created in September 2008.
His salary has increased 75 percent since he was hired in March 2009 at $93,595.
The TCEDA annual budget has nearly doubled from $231,697 in the 2009-10 fiscal year to $460,732 in the past two fiscal years. The last increase in 2017 was nearly 12 percent more than the previous year, at a time when most county departments were having to trim their budgets by 5 to 8 percent.
When Councilwoman Connie Williams was a member of the TCEDA board she suggested creating a finance committee to oversee the authority’s increasing budget and help find efficiencies while continuing to fulfill obligations.
She also pressed for trimming the budget because both the city and county were making cuts. Neither suggestion was implemented.
Cope operates in a realm all his own. He approves his own expense reports and is free to stay in any hotel and spend well beyond the limits imposed on county officials’ daily meal charges when traveling, which in 2017 and 2018 were $10 for breakfast, $11 for lunch and $21 for dinner.
In his 2017 records, Cope listed who he shared a meal with unless it was a business prospect, but his records for 2018 show only that it was a local partner, existing business/client, or prospect so it was impossible to know whether any meals were with county officials.
In July 2018, after the Tuolumne County Grand Jury questioned the TCEDA’s spending, Cope significantly reduced his travel and meals. In the first six months of the year, Cope spent just over $3,000 on meals at local eateries and slightly less than $550 in the the last six months.
Two-thirds of meals in 2017 were with a supervisor, a county official or a member of the Tuolumne Economic Development Authority board.
Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission, said the organization does not take board members out to eat. The commission may buy 10 to 15 lunches per year for potential clients or others when necessary.
County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt ate with Cope the most, totalling 25 meals, usually lunch at Applebee’s, followed by Gray, who is also the chair of the TCEDA board.
Hanvelt, who is no longer on the Board of Supervisors, did not respond to a request for comment.
Other frequent diners were TCEDA board members Barry Hillman, David Thoeny, Jim Gianelli, County Supervisor Karl Rodefer, and David Gonzalves, director of the county’s Community Resources Agency.
Cope’s calendar shows he worked almost every weekend and all holidays in 2017, including 12 hours on Thanksgiving and all but four days during a month-long trip to England.
Cope gets 320 hours of vacation, the equivalent of eight five-day work weeks, each year under his contract. He cashed out 720 hours in unused vacation time over a three-year period from 2015 through 2017 because of his work schedule.
The authority’s Travel and Business Expense Policy, adopted in 2009, states that almost every rule can be overruled with permission from the executive director.
Debi Bautista, the county’s elected auditor-controller since 2006, said the main reason policies governing Cope’s travel and meal expenses were written to be different from other county employees is because it allows him to purchase alcohol for entertaining clients.
In June, the final month of the 2018 fiscal year, Cope bought a $2,759 Microsoft Surface Pro tablet and accessories, his third tablet purchase in 18 months.
He bought a $700 a Microsoft Surface tablet in December 2016, then another with accessories for $2,633 that he labeled “computer upgrade” in June 2017, also the final month of the fiscal year. That same month he bought three telephones for $757.
Cope said the tablets are “not only the tablets that I use while traveling on business trips … but they are also the ones I ‘dock’ into a monitor when I get back to TCEDA offices,” which eliminates the need for a dedicated desktop computer and associated expenses.
When asked via email why the three tablets were purchased in the span of 18 months, Cope replied that he could not answer without knowing specifically which ones. He stated that “some were likely for the TCEDA offices and some could be for the InnovationLab.”
The lab closed in mid-August 2018.
In April 2018, Cope spent $1,071 on a drone, which he listed as expendable equipment.
Cope said it is used for aerial videos of industrial, commercial and retail parks in the county. “Once that project is complete, the videos will be placed on the website and on a cloud server so that business prospects looking at Tuolumne County and the City of Sonora will get a bird’s eye view of what we have to offer to them,” Cope said, adding that buying the drone was cheaper than hiring someone.
Drone footage is not available on the website yet.
The bar stools and the night vision cameras were for the InnovationLab, Cope said.
Expenditures were made by TCEDA for other offices. Cope bought a 4K Smart LED TV and wall mount from Amazon for $460 for the county’s Community Resources Agency.
Gonzalves said he uses the TV as a monitor in a conference room at the county’s A.N. Francisco Building.
“Our building was built in 1980 and we were literally still using old cork boards and physical maps, and that’s not the presentation I wanted for our department,” he said. “The economic development department was willing to help us because budgets are tight, and it’s been a great tool.”
Cope also used the TCEDA credit card to purchase a $101 VIP ticket for then District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce to attend a party on May 26 at the 25-acre Los Gatos estate of Chandler Guo, a Chinese cryptocurrency tycoon.
Royce said he recalls Cope emailing him to ask if he would like to attend the event knowing that he’s interested in cryptocurrency technology, which is essentially a form of digital cash.
Royce said his primary goal of attending was in hopes of attracting cryptocurrency startups to the county, which he believes has potential to be a satellite area for more expensive places like the Bay Area where many tech companies are based.
He said there was “enormous amounts of money flowing” at the party, but he ultimately left feeling unimpressed because he didn’t believe it was very well organized. He drove there in his own vehicle and returned home later that night, without asking for reimbursement on mileage or any other expenses from the county.
In 2017, Cope went to San Francisco seven times, twice to San Diego and Monterey, and once to Las Vegas, Sacramento, Santa Clara and Anderson. While at the California Economic Summit in San Diego from Nov. 11-14, he ordered room service for three nights at a total cost of $262.
He made 18 trips from January to June 2018, and seven trips from July to December. They were to San Francisco three times, Markleeville, Pleasanton, Los Angeles and Tehachapi, southeast of Bakersfield.
“The frequency of trips, locations of trips, types and nature and frequency of purchases, in my opinion, indicate a need for more oversight and accountability,” said City Administrator Tim Miller, “which is an issue that’s been raised by the public, by members of the council, and by the grand jury.”
“Those types of expenditures would clearly not be consistent with city policies,” he continued, “and if not city policies — fiscally responsible behavior.”
Cope was a regular attendee of Society 3, a meeting in San Francisco of entrepreneurs to make and listen to pitches about innovative businesses.
One Monterey trip was for Workforce Association, a group that seeks to enhance the efforts of local development boards, the other for California Main Street Conference. After the conference, he stayed for two days of scouting.
The Las Vegas trip in May was to attend the Retail Real Estate Convention. The county paid for airfare for Cope and his wife, and Cope reimbursed the county for his wife’s fare. Total cost was $1,665 plus seven Lyft trips.
In August, he went to Santa Clara for the ECI Festival, which was established to create opportunities between the U.S. and China in investment, technology and marketing.
From Dec. 5-8, he was in the Bay Area for BioMedDevice convention, Norcal Industrial Surge, then did Biomed Device outreach before attending Society 3 in San Francisco, and home on Dec. 8
“His job was to be attending these conferences and reaching out and promoting Tuolumne County,” said District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who has served on the TCEDA board since January 2017. “We’re not going to promote Tuolumne County by staying in Tuolumne County.”
In previous conversations with Cope, he has said the conventions have helped the city and county because he has met people who one day may be looking for a place to start or expand a business, a relationship that takes years to develop.
The authority changed focus in 2013 to spend more time attracting businesses, after focusing primarily on retaining local businesses.
In January 2018, Cope went outside of the county for business five times. He made two trips to Sacramento for a conference on rural economic development and meetings with state officials, one to Sacramento for prospect meetings and pitch events, one to the Entrepreneur Lab in Stockton and one to Modesto for a tour of the VOLT Institute and other meetings.
In February, he flew to Los Angeles for the Entertainment Evolution and Designs and Manufacturing convention. He also drove to Pleasanton for the California Main Street Conference and to Fresno for training at the Community Development Institute in Fresno.
In March, Cope was out of town for the better part of three weeks, to Anaheim for the Natural Wood Products Expo West, back for a day and then to Monterey for CALED’s annual training conference. He stayed at the Hotel Pacific in Monterey from March 13 to 17.
On March 16, he went to Oakland for a tech drop-in event in the evening. The next day — a Saturday — his calendar lists a trip to Santa Rosa to research fire recovery for two hours.
For the next few days, Cope listed his activities as “Silicon Valley research for prospecting” and “Oakland and East Bay research for prospecting.” He stayed at the Courtyard Marriott in Emeryville, where he often stays when he’s in the Bay Area. That stay was March 17 to 20.
On Tuesday, March 20, he attended the Game Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. He stayed at the Inn at the Presidio, where his lodging cost $1,409. The conference lasted until March 23.
When he stayed at the inn for four nights in 2017, he listed the expense as “tour and research San Francisco businesses.” The room cost $563 one day and $473 on the others.
He spent more than $500 from March 13 to 23 at restaurants including Outback Steakhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, Breakfast Club, Soi Four Bangkok Eatery, Presidio Social Club, Mel’s Dine In and Presidio Arguello. Most of the meals were $30 to $40.
The March trips cost taxpayers $6,800 combined.
In June 2018, Cope went to Boston to attend the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual convention, an expense of $5,031 that included a six-night stay at the Taj Hotel, where his room ranged in price from $479 to $720.
Gray described part of Cope’s job as being a pitchman for the county.
Gray said Cope must travel to make connections in hopes of attracting business owners to visit the county, which he would then help facilitate their re-location.
Gray said Cope also reports back to the board about what happened at the conferences and whether he believes it’s worth going back to the following year.
“I remember one of the events he told us he talked to a Panda Express person and they ended up being here,” Gray said. “Was it a result of Larry? I don’t know. Could they have already been looking here? I don’t know.”
The county would be “severely hurt” without an economic development program, according to Gray. He said it couldn’t be done at a staff level due to the limitations on county employees that don’t apply to Cope.
“You have to have freedom to operate,” Gray said. “You have to be out there.”
Gray said he once told Cope, “If you get a Trader Joe’s and an In-N-Out to come to Tuolumne County, no one will ever say another word about you.”
“That’s the shallowness of the public,” Gray said. “They just don’t understand.”
Brennan said TCEDA has been involved in some projects that have come to the county and been beneficial, but she couldn’t say whether the origin of those contacts were made on a business trip Cope took.
One project Brennan pointed to is a 12,000-square-foot expansion of Safari Learning Academy in East Sonora.
Asked about other projects, Brennan said she knows of some the TCEDA is involved with but couldn’t discuss them out of respect for the privacy of the clients.
Brennan and Gray both said the reason Cope’s traveling and meal expenses declined dramatically in the second half of 2018 was due to dealing with a citizen’s lawsuit for public records and other requests for information related to the grand jury report.
The County Counsel’s Office stated in a recent memo that its staff and Cope have responded to 17 formal requests for public records since July of last year. In a recent interview for a separate story, Cope said he spends about 75 percent of his time responding to such requests.
Members of the Sonora City Council had varied reactions to the TCEDA’s expenses, but all five said they believed changes needed to be made.
Mayor Jim Garaventa said he believes there needs to be better measurements of the authority’s performance and outcomes to justify the costs for Cope’s trips.
“I would like to know what results came from all these conference that he went to,” Garaventa said. “If we got businesses or at least prospects to come out here and be in Tuolumne County, that’s one thing. But if we’re not even getting any inquiries, that seems a little excessive.”
Councilman Matt Hawkins said after hearing about some of the ways TCEDA has spent money, he wouldn’t agree that it was the best use of taxpayer funds, but he would want to sit down and talk with Cope to see if any new businesses came from it.
Councilman Mark Plummer said he’s not as concerned about Cope’s travel and business expenses as he is about whether the city is getting good results from its overall investment in the authority.
“I don’t want to quibble about what you can say is the little stuff,” he said. “It’s about what we’re getting for a half of a million dollars per year. That’s a lot of money.”
Plummer wants the TCEDA to determine some measurements that can be used to better evaluate the results of its work, such as population, average wage, household income, employment numbers, and housing starts.
One way the authority’s board has gauged Cope’s performance was how many interactions he made over the course of a given year, including the number of phone calls, emails and in-person encounters.
During an annual report to county supervisors in April 2017, Cope said he had done 90 in-person visits with individual businesses and 65 group visits in 2016 as part of the authority’s program to retain and help existing businesses expand.
Cope also said he made 1,192 visits with local businesses since being hired in early 2009.
The number of interactions Cope said he made in 2016 was 2,446. He also estimated that he had made 14,000-plus interactions up to that point.
Examples of events that Cope cited at the time included an annual manufacturing trade show in Fresno, Bay Area travel shows, a retail show in Monterey, the annual Natural Products Expo West, a Bioenergy Association of California conference, and multiple Bay Area recruitment trips and pitch events.
Such, who was elected to the city council in June, said, “This is an example of why oversight is so critical. Those charges are outrageous to me.”
Being reimbursed or charging meals to taxpayers when traveling for business reasons isn’t necessarily inappropriate, Such said, but she believed there should be more limits on what’s allowed.
Such also said she felt it was “shameful” and an “abuse of the system” to have taxpayers in the county pay for meals at local restaurants with elected supervisors and government officials, as opposed to business clients and prospects.
“The reason I say it’s shameful is that we do live in a poor county,” she said. “We live in a county where so many people are hungry. I mean, really, you charge for Taco Bell? It’s almost like you’re winking at the camera.”
While defenders of the TCEDA and Cope himself blamed the fallout from the Grand Jury’s investigation as the reason for the sudden drop off in spending during the second half of 2018, Such said she believes the increased public scrutiny had some effect.
“They weren’t so arrogant that they thought they could continue the abuse while they were under scrutiny,” she said. “That’s what it looks like to me.”
Maggie Beck contributed to this report.