Larry Cope will be paid more than $80,000, in addition to an undisclosed amount for unused vacation time, when he leaves his job later this month as chief executive officer of the soon-to-be-defunct Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.
Cope signed a separation and release agreement on Thursday that terminates his employment contract with the TCEDA on March 16. The county Board of Supervisors will also soon consider creating a new position for an interim economic development director who would be paid much less than Cope’s currently making.
Both the board and Sonora City Council voted unanimously on Feb. 19 to shut down the authority after months of controversy about spending and transparency that left it buried under audits and requests for public records.
Cope did not respond to requests for comment on Friday and declined to speak about the termination of his contract at a public meeting last week.
His contract entitles him to six months of severance pay at his current wage of $78.67 an hour, totalling just under $82,000, if it’s terminated before the agreed upon term of employment. The TCEDA Governing Board extended Cope’s contract in March 2018 to run through April 6, 2023.
Cope earns an annual salary of $163,625 and is one of the highest paid county and city employees. He also receives a $500 per month car allowance and $200 per month stipend for a cell phone and Internet.
The county Human Resources Department declined to release the number of vacation hours Cope has banked because the County Counsel’s Office said that information is exempt from public disclosure.
Human Resources Manager Ann Fremd said the lump-sum payment that Cope receives on his way out will be public information, but she couldn’t say an amount yet because it could change if he uses any vacation hours between now and March 16.
The release agreement stated that Cope’s final day in the TCEDA office at 99 N. Washington St. in Sonora will be March 13, and he will take two days of vacation on March 14 and 15.
Cope receives 320 hours of vacation each year and can cash-out a maximum of 200 unused hours annually, unless he gets permission from the TCEDA Governing Board to cash-out more than that.
There’s no cap on the number of vacation hours he can amass because he was hired before 2011, which was when the county set the limit at 750 hours for everyone hired after that.
Financial records show the TCEDA paid a total of nearly $14,400 in vacation leave cash-outs in the fiscal year from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018. Cope has been the authority’s only employee since his assistant quit in March last year.
The TCEDA’s budget for the current fiscal year sets aside $14,526 for cash-outs of unused vacation time, equivalent to about 185 hours at Cope’s current hourly wage.
Cope’s work calendar for 2018 showed he listed four days as “personal time off” while in Monterey at the end of July and start of August, though it said he also worked for several hours on each of those days responding to calls and emails and “administrative time/duties.”
There are no other days since July 1 listed as vacation time.
Cope also agreed to give back 80 hours of unused vacation time as part of the terms of his release agreement due to a “misunderstanding” on his part regarding the appropriate use of “comp time” and “management leave,” which was based on entries in his calendar for 2017 that were inconsistent with his time card.
The agreement stated that Cope asserts he worked on the days in question, but will agree to give back the hours to settle any misunderstanding.
“I would say that was a good faith negotiation on his part,” said County Counsel Sarah Carrillo, who helped negotiate the agreement on behalf of the TCEDA board.
One of the findings made by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury in a report released at the end of June was that Cope went to England for a month in 2017 and used only four vacation days, with the rest being mostly labeled as “comp time.”
Carrillo said the agreement to give back 80 unused vacation hours wasn’t specific to the England trip.
The date of when the TCEDA will be fully dissolved is yet to be determined, but county Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista said the goal is to have everything on the financial side wrapped up by end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Funding for the authority’s $460,000 annual budget come from the city and county under a joint powers agreement that created the TCEDA in late 2008. The city’s share is 23 percent, or about $103,000, while the county covers most of the remaining amount.
Bautista said both governments are obligated to continue funding the authority through June 30, though the city has pushed to dissolve it before that in an effort to save as much taxpayer money as possible.
Some of the things that the city and county must negotiate before the TCEDA can be dissolved include what to do with any outstanding contracts or leases, unfunded pension liabilities, and how to split up the property that the authority owns.
The joint powers agreement states the authority’s physical assets will be distributed to the city and county based on the percentage of funding that each provides.
Cope also must give back the TCEDA’s credit card to Bautista before his contract ends on March 16. He also must still provide receipts for any purchases made on it before that time.
An investigation by The Union Democrat of the TCEDA’s travel and business expense records determined that Cope made more than $100,000 in charges on the card in 2017 and 2018.
Most of the spending was for business-related trips and meals at local restaurants with government officials, politicians and TCEDA board members mostly, as well as purchases like a drone, night vision camera, and three Microsoft Surface tablets totaling more than $5,000 over a period of 18 months.
The authority’s travel and business expense policy, which was adopted in 2009 and updated in 2015, allowed Cope to sign his own expense reports and overrule almost every limitation that would apply to a typical employee.
Bautista is going to work with County Administrator Tracie Riggs on a proposed policy for travel and business expenses, including meals, for the proposed interim economic development director.
The policy will be much different than the TCEDA’s because the person will be a county employee, Bautista said, but they will still try to provide some flexibility to address some of the unique aspects of the position.
“I’m not sure what we’ll come up with, but it will be in line with the county’s policies,” she said. “We will acknowledge this person’s functions are different and try to cover that, but not make this person so much different that we have some issues with personnel.”
Bautista said some of the changes will likely be that the person can’t purchase alcohol with public funds, which Cope was allowed to do when entertaining clients, and will be limited to a maximum reimbursement of $13 for breakfast, $14 for lunch, and $23 for dinner.
Cope regularly ran up tabs of more than $30 for meals at taxpayer expense, according to his 2017 and 2018 expense records.
The new position will also likely have to provide a more detailed accounting of who they are meeting with and why on receipts for meals to comply with the Internal Revenue Service’s requirements.
Bautista said they likely won’t require the interim director to disclose specific names of prospective clients to protect their confidentiality, but instead use descriptions like the industry of the business and whether it’s located inside or outside of the county.
Cope listed whether he was meeting with a “local partner,” “existing business,” or “prospect,” on his 2018 calendar.
The salary range for the position will start at $99,382 to a maximum of $121,306 per year.
Fremd recommended the range based on the salaries for similar positions in the counties of Calaveras, El Dorado, Merced, Mono, Placer, and San Joaquin. She said a person can be paid more than the starting salary based on their experience, but not more than the maximum.
The range for Cope’s position was $148,097 to $180,789 a year, the fourth highest in the county behind the county administrator, health officer and psychiatrist.
A bachelor’s degree for the interim position is preferred, but not required. The person also must have seven years of experience in economic development and four years of administrative or management responsibility.
Fremd said she couldn’t recall whether Cope had a bachelor’s degree.
If county supervisors approve creating the position, there will be a two-week open recruitment period and anyone will be eligible to apply. No one could say Friday whether Cope has expressed any intention of applying.
The goal is to have finalists ready for interviews with county supervisors behind closed doors on March 19 and to ultimately have someone in place by April 1, Riggs said.
The recommended operational budget for the interim director is $53,600 to cover through the end of the fiscal year on June 30, which includes $40,500 for the interim director’s salary and benefits, $2,000 for mileage reimbursement, $800 for office expenses, $1,500 for travel, entertainment and meals, $1,000 for advertising, $4,000 for rent, $3,500 for computer equipment, and $300 for utilities.
Riggs said they haven’t determined whether the interim director’s office will be in a county-owned building or the current TCEDA offices in Sonora that the county leases in conjunction with the Public Defender’s Office.
City Administrator Tim Miller wasn’t available Friday but has said he plans to work with the council on scheduling a public workshop with a consultant to gather input from the community on future ideas for economic development efforts.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.