The Union Democrat’s report from Tuesday about how the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority spent more than $100,000 of taxpayer money in 2017 and 2018 on travel and other expenses confirmed to some local elected officials that the agency’s reputation was damaged beyond repair.
Several county supervisors and members of the Sonora City Council said in interviews on Wednesday and Thursday that they felt the story illustrated how important it is for a government agency to maintain the public’s trust. Others said they hadn’t read it, or didn’t respond to inquiries.
“I had my own feelings already, but I just felt like with all of that information, that the authority had sort of irreparably lost the public trust,” said Councilwoman Colette Such.
Such said she was surprised at the freedom given to the TCEDA’s chief executive officer, Larry Cope, when it came to the organization’s expense account.
Among the findings from the report were that Cope bought at least one meal at taxpayer expense on almost every working day in 2017 and the first half of 2018, attended conferences in places like Boston and San Francisco where he stayed in hotels that sometimes cost more than $700 a night, and spent thousands of dollars on other purchases, including a drone, night vision camera and three Microsoft Surface tablets in the span of 18 months.
The report also found that most of the meals Cope purchased with public funds were for meetings with local politicians, government officials, and members of the TCEDA Governing Board, as opposed to clients and business prospects.
Such put much of the blame on the authority’s board for a lack of oversight.
“What was asked of them is what’s asked of all boards,” she said. “You always have a fiduciary responsibility with public money and donor money, always.”
The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors voted to dissolve the TCEDA at a public meeting the same morning the newspaper’s report was published and hours after the story had been posted online.
District 3 Supervisor Anaiah Kirk said he had heard about the article but didn’t get a chance to read it before the board meeting, so it didn’t affect his decision to vote in favor of dissolving the TCEDA.
Kirk said when he read the story after the meeting was over, it confirmed his belief that the policies governing any future economic development efforts need to be stronger.
“There’s been too much leniency with that agency,” he said.
Kirk added, however, that he can’t hold someone responsible if they didn’t violate any policies. Cope was allowed to sign his own expense reports and overrule almost every limitation in the TCEDA’s Travel and Business Expense Policy, which the authority’s board approved in 2009.
The main reason Kirk cited for voting in favor of dismantling the TCEDA was his belief that the city was eventually going to end the partnership after ongoing audits of the authority’s management practices and finances were complete.
At the meeting, Kirk described the situation with the agency as “high school on steroids,” which he clarified on Thursday was in reference to what he viewed as personal issues that some members of the public had with Cope.
District 2 Supervisor Ryan Campbell said the story had an impact on his decision to vote in favor of ending the partnership between the city and county, which was forged through a joint powers agreement in late 2008.
Campbell said he believed the story illustrated “poor judgment” on behalf of both the TCEDA board and Cope, and that shutting it down was the best choice given the damage to the authority’s public image.
“Once you’ve lost the public trust in that agency, it becomes extremely difficult — if not impossible — for that agency to do its job,” he said. “We’ve seen that recently with the EDA.”
County officials have said requests for public records related to the TCEDA have occupied hundreds of hours of their time since the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released a report at the end of June that raised concerns about the agency’s management practices.
Cope has said that about 75 percent of his time as of late has been spent responding to requests and dealing with the ongoing audits that were launched last year as a result of the jury’s report.
“The whole mess has been a colossal waste of time and money for taxpayers,” Campbell said.
District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who has served on the authority’s board since January 2017, said the amount of county resources being used on TCEDA-related matters was her reason for voting in favor of withdrawing from the agreement with the city.
Brennan said on Wednesday that she had not read the story on the agency’s expenses.
District 4 Supervisor John Gray and District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer did not respond to requests for comment on the story. Gray has served on the TCEDA board since 2011 and as its chairman since 2014.
Some city council members said the unanimous decision by all five county supervisors to end the TCEDA caught them by surprise.
The council had a meeting Tuesday afternoon where it was originally scheduled to consider a request from the board for more time to complete the TCEDA audits.
There was a deadline on March 1 for either the city or county to decide if they wanted to remain a part of the TCEDA for another fiscal year, which was extended from Jan. 1 at the request of the council late last year.
Mayor Jim Garaventa, who appointed himself to the TCEDA board after the jury’s report was released, said he was under the impression that the county was going to extend the deadline by another month and didn’t anticipate supervisors to take the action they did.
“I was expecting they were going to, and had been told that they were going to, extend the audits by another month,” he said. “When they changed their mind and got out of the EDA, it changed the dynamic.”
Councilman Mark Plummer was the only member who didn’t attend the meeting on Tuesday because he went to help his father with some projects in Southern California and believed they would simply be passing a resolution to extend the deadline for the audits.
Plummer said he read the story on the TCEDA’s expenses while in Southern California and was surprised by some of the information, but he couldn’t say whether that would have affected his decision.
“Once the Board of Supervisors elected to get out of the relationship, I would have been all for doing the same from the city’s perspective,” he said. “If we’re not working together, then it’s not going to work at all.”
Councilwoman Connie Williams served on the TCEDA board from July 2016 through June 2018, during which she called for a committee to be formed to take a deeper look at the authority’s finances after questioning some of the spending.
Williams said she wasn’t surprised by the information presented in the story because of what she saw while on the board, but there was more to it than she previously thought.
Councilman Matt Hawkins said he wasn’t surprised at the information contained in the article on Tuesday because he had researched some of the expenses himself before its publication.
Hawkins couldn’t say whether the story would have impacted his view of continuing with the partnership had the board not voted to end it earlier that day, but he would have used it to bolster whichever decision he made.
“At least I could have pointed to it and said here’s the cost, here’s what’s going on, and here’s why I voted this way,” he said.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.