Tuolumne County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday morning to dissolve the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority and end its partnership with the City of Sonora that was forged in late 2008.

The Sonora City Council voted 4-0 to withdraw and begin the process of shutting down the authority. Councilman Mark Plummer was absent.

One point of contention was how soon the authority will cease to exist.

City Attorney Douglas White recommended a deadline by the end of this month because it doesn’t make sense to continue giving taxpayer money to an agency that both governments agree should be shut down.

“If we mutually agree that it shouldn’t exist, we want to save as much money for taxpayers as we can,” White said.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo addressed the council and said the recommended deadline wasn’t realistic because a number of issues need to be resolved, including any contracts, leases, and the potential severance package for Larry Cope, executive director of the TCEDA since shortly after its inception and currently its only employee.

Carrillo said she plans to discuss some of the process of dissolution at the TCEDA board meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

The council ultimately accepted White’s suggestion to give him permission to meet with Carrillo and work out a mutually agreeable deadline, which he will then present to the council for approval at its next meeting on March 4.

Cope, who did not attend either meeting Tuesday, told The Union Democrat in an email prior to the council meeting that he had no comment on the board’s decision at this time.

His employment contract entitles him to up to six months severance pay if it’s terminated before the end of the agreed upon period, which is currently through April 6, 2023. The TCEDA board and Cope must give 90 days notice if either one wants to terminate the contract, according to the terms.

Cope is one of the highest paid employees in county government and receives a salary of $163,625 a year, in addition to health and retirement benefits, 40 days of vacation, and $8,400 in stipends for a car and cell phone.

Councilwoman Colette Such asked White about Cope’s severance package, which could be more than $80,000 under the terms of the contract.

White responded that Cope’s severance pay will have to be negotiated through the process of dissolving the authority and could be affected if the county decides to hire him as an employee for economic development efforts without the city.

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who has served on the TCEDA board since January 2017, said in an interview prior to the council meeting that she would like to see Cope remain a part of the county’s future economic development efforts.

“I think he’s been effective at getting businesses to Tuolumne County,” she said.

Brennan also addressed the council Tuesday afternoon and said she doesn’t believe the board will draw out the process because the county wants to be as efficient with taxpayer dollars as possible, too.

County pulls the plug

Some county supervisors during the board meeting earlier in the day pointed the blame for the TCEDA’s demise on the city council, personal attacks against Cope, and a barrage of requests for public records that are occupying most of his and county staff’s time.

“I am very regretful it has come to this,” said District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who serves as board chairman. “This is what happens when people do personal attacks on good people. I do believe Larry Cope is a good person who has done good things for this county, and I believe undoubtedly the economic development authority has done good things for this county.”

Rodefer also pointed blame on the TCEDA Governing Board and said, “If you’ve got a problem with the economic development authority, then you’ve got a problem with the board and the process.”

District 4 Supervisor John Gray, who has served on TCEDA board since 2011 and as its chairman since 2014, said he hated to see the authority end this way but believes it’s time for the county to do economic development without the city.

“Their contribution of 20 percent in the overall is quite small when you consider the amount of money that the county also infuses as far as legal counsel and HR,” he said of the other county departments that provide assistance to the TCEDA for free.

The board went into a closed session after the vote to discuss another matter.

Afterward, Gray declined to say what happens now with Cope’s job. He said he’s “fed up with economic development right now and moving onto the next subject.”

In response to a question from Supervisor Anaiah Kirk at the board meeting, Carrillo said her office has dedicated more than 300 hours to dealing with public records requests and other matters involving the TCEDA.

Carrillo said that would be about $38,000 if they billed the TCEDA for that time, which they do not.

The office has responded to 17 formal requests for information under the California Public Records Act since the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released a report at the end of June about its investigation of the TCEDA.

Cope has said he spends as much 75 percent of his time now responding to the requests, as opposed to bringing economic development to the city and county.

Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista said her office had also spent about 250 hours on requests since that time. She added that included responding to a request for information from The Union Democrat during her day off on Monday.

Kirk said he wanted to see the authority stay intact and tighten its policies, but he said the drama surrounding it has become like “high school on steroids.”

“I think the writing’s on the wall, and if the city isn’t going to make a decision, we need to make the decision for them,” Kirk said before voting to withdraw from the joint powers agreement that formed the authority.

Almost all of the authority’s $460,000 a year annual budget is funded by taxpayer money from both governments. The city pays 23 percent, while the county covers the rest.

According to the joint powers agreement, if the county, city or both decides to withdraw, then all debts and advances of the authority will be paid and property will be divided between the county and city based on how much each has invested.

District 2 Supervisor Ryan Campbell said he found the current situation with the TCEDA “disappointing.”

After the meeting, Campbell said he was disappointed because he believed the authority started with the best intentions and had some early success before losing the public’s trust due to the way it was being managed.

Campbell said breaking from the agreement with the city now was the best of two bad options, because the county would have less time to come up with an alternate plan if the city decided to end the partnership later on.

“If that’s the direction we’re going, it’s best to rip the Band-Aid off now,” he said.

Barbara Dresslar, of Sonora, urged county supervisors to shut down the TCEDA prior to their vote Tuesday morning.

Dresslar talked about a review by The Union Democrat of Cope’s travel and expense records that found he had spent over $100,000 in 2017 and 2018 on trips, almost daily meals, and other purchases, including multiple computer tablets, a night vision camera and drone.

“Our local newspaper had to file through the California Public Records Act to bring the truth to our community about how TCEDA is wasting our community’s tax funds with a flat economy as the outcome,” she said.

Such, who attended the supervisors’ meeting, said after the board made its decision that the city isn’t making the public records requests, which she believed will continue to be filed if the county goes its own way without fixing the underlying issues.

“No one really brought up the issues at hand,” she said. “I don’t know how they read that article and feel like they don’t owe someone an apology.”

The reason county supervisors discussed the TCEDA at their meeting on Tuesday was to consider asking the city council for additional time to complete audits of the agency’s finances and management practices.

After the Grand Jury report was released, the TCEDA Governing Board hired the independent auditing firm MGO to conduct the audits for $41,000 at the request of the city council and Board of Supervisors.

Bautista said she believes the audits will be completed because there is a contract in place, the TCEDA board has not directed her to attempt to cancel them.

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

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