Terminating the employment contract for the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority’s chief executive officer will be among the many things subject to negotiations between the county and City of Sonora over the coming weeks.

This comes after county and city elected officials voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin the process of dismantling the TCEDA, which was created in late 2008 through a joint powers agreement between the two governments.

Their decision to end the partnership followed revelations about the management practices and spending by TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope, which were originally brought to light in a report by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released at the end of June.
The Union Democrat also conducted an extensive review of the TCEDA’s travel and expense records from the previous two years and published the findings on Tuesday, which included that Cope spent more than $100,000 over that period on trips, meals with mostly county officials, and other purchases.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo said her office, which serves as the TCEDA’s primary legal adviser, is still wrapping their heads around all of the authority’s outstanding legal obligations that will have to be addressed as part of the dissolution process.

“That’s what we’re looking at right now,” she said.

Among the obligations Carrillo listed are leases for offices in downtown Sonora and Groveland, a contract with the Modesto-based Valley Sierra Small Business Development for consulting and outreach, and Cope’s employment contract.

Cope’s employer is the TCEDA Governing Board, as opposed to the city or county, and the board will no longer be a legal entity after the dissolution process is complete. He did not respond on Wednesday to a request for comment about what he plans to do next.

The terms of the contract stated that Cope is entitled to six months severance pay if the TCEDA board chooses to terminate it before the end of the agreed upon period of employment, which was amended in May 2018 to run through April 6, 2023.

There’s also a provision requiring the board or Cope to give 90-day notice if either wants to terminate the contract prematurely, which Carrillo said will be one of the things her office will have to get direction on from the TCEDA board.

“I think there’s probably some room to negotiate and make some changes to that, but that’s still direction we will need,” Carrillo said.

Cope earns an annual base salary $163,625. County administrator, health officer and psychiatrist are the only positions out of 441 that have a salary range higher than Cope’s, according to the county’s salary schedules.

County Administrator Tracie Riggs, who replaced Craig Pedro in January and is the first woman to hold the position, currently earns a base salary that’s about $3,000 a year less than Cope’s but is subject to annual increases that would eventually push her’s higher.

Carrillo said she believes the Ralph M. Brown Act, the California law that governs meetings of public entities like the TCEDA, allows the authority’s board to negotiate the termination of Cope’s contract in open session or appoint a labor negotiator to negotiate with him in private.

The board could negotiate directly with Cope at a public meeting because he’s considered an unrepresented employee, according to Carrillo, though he receives the same health and retirement benefits as other top county officials who are part of the executive/confidential labor unit.

Cope’s contract also grants him a $500-per-month car allowance and $200-per-month stipend for a cell phone and Internet, perks that most other county officials don’t receive.

Carrillo clarified that Cope couldn’t be automatically converted into a county employee. She said the Board of Supervisors would be required to first approve a job description for the new position and open it for recruitment.

If the board hired Cope as a county employee, Carrillo couldn’t say whether that would affect his severance package because the TCEDA is a totally separate legal entity from the city and county.

“I can’t say for certain whether or not it would, just that it has completely separate obligations,” she said.

City Attorney Douglas White said on Tuesday that the city would like to dissolve the TCEDA by the end of this month to save more taxpayer money from being spent on an agency that both governments believe should no longer exist.

City Administrator Tim Miller said the cost to the city is more than $8,000 for each additional month it remains operating.

Carrillo said the timeframe by the end of the month wasn’t realistic due to the amount of work still to be done. The Sonora City Council directed White to work with her and determine a deadline, which he plans to present to the council for approval at its next meeting on March 4.

“If we can do as much as possible in 30 days, that would be ideal,” Carrillo said on Wednesday. “I don’t know if that’s realistic … I want to be thorough in wrapping it up, and sometimes when you move too fast you’re not as thorough as you could be.”

The TCEDA board will meet at 9:30 a.m. Thursday and consider an urgency item to give direction on the process of dissolving the entity to Carrillo and her team. She said it’s unlikely they will cover everything and may have to hold special meetings in the coming weeks.

There will also be a closed session discussion about one case of “anticipated litigation,” which was put on the agenda days before the decision to dissolve the entity on Tuesday.

Carrillo could not discuss what the anticipated litigation is, other than that she wasn’t aware that anything has been filed with the court yet. Tuolumne County Superior Court records didn’t show any recently filed lawsuits against the TCEDA or Cope on Wednesday.

The Economic Prosperity Council of Tuolumne County, the nonprofit arm of the TCEDA, will also meet after the board’s meeting and discuss one case of anticipated litigation in closed session.

The council’s board is comprised of the same members of the TCEDA board, which currently consists of District 4 Supervisor John Gray, District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, Sonora Mayor and Councilman Jim Garaventa, Councilman Matt Hawkins, and at-large members Barry Hillman and Ron Patel.

It will be the first meeting as a member of the TCEDA board for Patel, the former CEO of Black Oak Casino Resort, who was appointed to replace former longtime board member Jim Gianelli in November.

Carrillo said her office has not represented the nonprofit organization in any legal matters up to this point, though she said it was unclear to her what happen if the TCEDA board decides they also want to dissolve the council.

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