The Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority’s chief executive officer will soon be looking for a new job.

The TCEDA Governing Board voted 5-0 behind closed doors on Thursday to terminate Larry Cope’s employment contract, following a decision earlier this week by the Board of Supervisors and Sonora City Council to shut down the agency.

Cope declined to comment immediately after the meeting. When asked about his plans, he said he needed to talk with his wife and would maybe comment at a later time.

County Supervisor John Gray, who serves as chairman of the TCEDA board, delivered the public announcement about Cope’s contract following the closed session.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo and Human Resources Manager Ann Fremd were appointed to negotiate the termination date and severance package with Cope on behalf of the TCEDA board.

Gray said he had no comment when asked if he would like to see Cope involved with any of the county’s future efforts in economic development.

“What we’re going to do is what we announced here out of closed session,” he said before walking away.

The ending of Cope’s employment with the TCEDA comes nearly 10 years after he was hired in March 2009. His contract was renewed last year to run through April 6, 2023.

Cope’s contract entitles him to six months severance pay if the TCEDA board decides to terminate him before the end of the term. He earns a base salary of $163,625, among the highest in all of county government.

There was no discussion by the board at the meeting on Thursday about the information that’s come to light over the past year about the TCEDA’s management practices and spending.

A Grand Jury report released in June led to audits of the authority’s operations and finances that are still ongoing.

Carrillo said she believed the audits, which cost more than $41,000, will be seen through to completion because the board gave no direction on Thursday to cancel them.

There was also no mention of a report published on Tuesday by The Union Democrat about Cope’s spending for travel and business expenses, which the newspaper found amounted to more than $100,000 in 2017 and 2018.

Public records showed the spending for those years included pricey trips to places like Boston and San Francisco for conferences, meals with mostly county officials, and other purchases like a $1,000 drone and three computer tablets totalling more than $5,000.

The board also unanimously voted on Thursday to approve recommendations for the process of dismantling the TCEDA, which was created in late 2008 through a joint powers agreement signed by the county and City of Sonora.

County supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to end the partnership after months of back and forth over the issue with the Sonora City Council, which had threatened to leave.

The council also met on Tuesday and approved the dissolution of the TCEDA.

Most of the supervisors said they voted in favor of dissolving the TCEDA due to the resources and time being spent by Cope and county staff responding to formal requests for public records since the Grand Jury’s report was released.

County officials said the amount of staff time spent on the TCEDA since July was equal to roughly $60,000 in billable hours, while Cope said as much as 75 percent of his time was occupied by the requests and audits.

Carrillo told the TCEDA board on Thursday that she believes her office will need at least until the end of March to complete the dissolution, which includes terminating any of the authority’s active contracts or leases and negotiating with Cope on his severance.

Contracts and leases approved for termination were with the Modesto-based Valley Sierra Small Business Development Center, the Groveland-based company Sabre Design, the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools for the use of a TCEDA-owned robot for educational purposes, Comcast, Ring Central for telephone service, and a lease with the Mountain Leisure Center in Groveland for the TCEDA’s South County satellite office.

The Valley Sierra SBDC contract was for $10,000 last year to do outreach and one-on-one consulting with businesses in downtown areas throughout the county, with an option to renew it for the same amount each year for up to three years.

Cope’s credit card records showed he often purchased marketing materials through Sabre Design. He spent $2,003 in June last year for flyers and various informational sheets.

Debi Bautista, county auditor-controller, said the lease with the Mountain Leisure Center was for $435 per month and required 30-day notice to terminate.

Bautista said the TCEDA’s main office at 99 N. Washington St. in Sonora is a little more complicated because the terms also includes the county Public Defender’s Office, which is housed in the same building.

The lease for the space occupied by the TCEDA is $1,288 per month, while the Public Defender’s Office is $2,130 per month. Milton Dambacher is identified as the landlord in county records.

Carrillo told the board that other things may come up in the coming weeks that will require a special meeting.

“Because we are trying to do this very quickly … there may be other items that need to come back to your board potentially at a special meeting before March 14,” she said. “We’re trying to be as expeditious as possible, but we also want to be thorough.”

City Attorney Douglas White initially suggested a deadline of dissolving the TCEDA by the end of the month, because he said it didn’t make sense for the city and county to continue paying into an entity that both say should no longer exist.

The city will have spent about $51,420 out of the nearly $103,000 in public funds that the council approved for the TCEDA’s annual budget in the current fiscal year that runs through June, according a mid-year budget report given by Cope at the meeting on Thursday.

The county has spent about $200,837 of the nearly $344,300 it agreed to provide for the agency’s budget, which is about $460,000 a year.

A discussion on the authority’s annual budget for the next fiscal year was cancelled due to the pending dissolution.

County Supervisor Sherri Brennan did not attend the meeting and was replaced by County Supervisor Karl Rodefer, the appointed alternate for the TCEDA board. Barry Hillman, a private-sector board member since August 2012, also did not attend.

It was the first and possibly last meeting for new TCEDA board member Ron Patel, former CEO of Black Oak Casino Resort, who was appointed to fill a vacant private-sector seat in November.

Patel said he attended despite the turn of events because he felt obligated after making the commitment. He hopes the county will find a new way to do economic development.

“There has to be someone dedicated to economic development,” he said. “You need it to survive.”

The board also voted to dissolve the Economic Prosperity Council of Tuolumne County, a nonprofit organization under the auspices of the TCEDA, which has the same board as the authority and Cope as its executive director.

Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl noted the organization could be transferred to another entity or turned into an independent organization, but there was an “extremely limited” amount of time to investigate those options.

George Segarini, a former city councilman and former executive director of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce, established the nonprofit organization in 2007 and transferred it to the TCEDA board in 2010.

Segarini served on the TCEDA and Economic Prosperity Council’s boards from 2014 until his retirement from the city council in July.

Few members of the public attended the meeting on Thursday. Most of the people in attendance were county or city officials.

City Administrator Tim Miller said after the meeting he plans on making a recommendation for the council to schedule a public workshop with a facilitator and consultant to gather ideas from the community on what the city’s economic development needs are moving forward.

The county also has yet to establish a plan for economic development, but several supervisors have talked about forming an agency without the city.

Other aspects in the process of dissolving the TCEDA include directing Cope to catalog all of the authority’s property and prepare a report for the board, create a proposed distribution for records, and cancel future trade show attendance and seek reimbursement for any registration fees that have already been paid.

The TCEDA’s expense records for 2018 showed Cope booked flights to Los Angeles for this month and in March for $198 each. Last year, he also booked a $247 flight through Allegiant Air and paid a $610 registration fee for a trip to Las Vegas in May to attend a conference hosted by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

In December, he charged taxpayers $854 to register for the annual Natural Wood Products Expo West in Anaheim that will be held March 5-9. He also spent $530 in September registering for the California Association for Local Economic Development’s annual training conference from March 27-29 in Anaheim, which included an additional charge of $35 for the conference’s culinary crawl on March 28.

Cope said while giving his CEO’s report at the end of the meeting that he had planned to attend the two-day Food Processing Expo in Santa Clara and a medical device manufacturing show earlier this month, but wasn’t able to go because he was busy working with the auditors.

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

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