The Sonora City Council voted 5-0 Monday night to ask the governing board of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority to consider publicly releasing a report on an internal investigation into conflicts of interest within the controversial agency.
A report released last Tuesday by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury also called for what was found through the county counsel’s inquiry, which has been kept secret because the TCEDA board exercised attorney-client privilege.
“The conflict needs to come out,” said Councilwoman Connie Williams, who served on the TCEDA board for two years from 2016 to 2018.
Williams talked about how she felt concerns she expressed while serving on the board were largely ignored, including a possible conflict of interest that she brought to the County Counsel’s Office but was never addressed.
When asked about the alleged conflict after the meeting, Williams said she felt it would be best for it to be divulged through the findings of the investigation by the County Counsel’s Office.
The council and county Board of Supervisors each voted unanimously on Feb. 19 to shut down the TCEDA, which was formed in 2008 as a joint powers authority between the two governments.
It’s demise came after a lawsuit filed by county resident Ken Perkins and a previous grand jury report released in June 2018 that raised concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability on behalf of the TCEDA and Larry Cope, its former chief executive officer.
“Larry worked at the pleasure of the board, and you can wrap yourself around all of your board members to get what you want. That’s exactly what happened,” Williams said. “This was a good old boys club.”
The county counsel’s review of possible conflicts of interest on the board was conducted last year in response to the previous report by the grand jury that raised concerns about multiple TCEDA board members serving on overlapping committees.
In its latest report, the jury stated that the TCEDA board has the ability to waive attorney-client privilege and release the findings to the public.
Williams said she appointed herself to the TCEDA board when she became mayor in July 2016 because of questions raised by constituents about how the city was or wasn’t benefitting from the funding it provided to the authority, which amounted to more than $100,000 a year.
After Cope asked the county and city for a budget increase in 2017, Williams urged the board to form a finance committee that could look at cutting back expenses. That never happened, however, and the nearly $500,000 annual budget remained the same in the following year.
“I was told by one member of the board that, when I was asking questions, the board was becoming divisive,” Williams said on Monday. “One of my questions was that at each meeting, bring a list of successes both in the city and county. Nothing ever happened.”
Williams said she didn’t want to see the TCEDA fall apart because she believes its important for the city to invest in economic development.
Mayor Jim Garaventa appointed himself and Councilman Matt Hawkins to replace Williams and former Councilman George Segarini on the TCEDA board in July last year after the previous grand jury report was released.
Hawkins praised Williams for raising concerns while on the TCEDA board and confirmed that she was vilified by other members as a result.
“They wanted to put you on a stake and set you on fire,” Hawkins said to Williams during the public meeting on Monday. “It was that bad.”
Hawkins also vented frustrations about how county elected officials publicly chided the council last year as it was considering the possibility of leaving the agency, before unexpectedly voting to do so themselves in February.
“It took almost four years for this to come to a head — a lawsuit, a grand jury investigation, a management audit and a financial audit — then suddenly the county says let’s shut this down and the city’s not working with us,” Hawkins said. “I felt that quite frankly we got the short end of the stick, and then got beat with the stick for asking questions.”
City resident Barbara Dresslar addressed the council earlier in the meeting to encourage it to demand the release of the county counsel’s investigation on conflicts of interest.
Dresslar also praised the council for “having the courage to bring the TCEDA to a reckoning.”
“The refusal to release the report is an example of why we had so many public records requests,” she said. The requests were cited by some county officials as a reason for shutting down the authority.
In an interview last week, County Supervisor John Gray, who has served as the TCEDA board chairman since 2014, declined to answer whether he would support waiving attorney-client privilege to release the report.
Garaventa said it would require at least four out of the five remaining members of the TCEDA board to support release the findings.
The board consists of Garaventa and Hawkins, Gray and County Supervisor Karl Rodefer, and at-large member Ron Patel, the retired chief executive officer of Black Oak Casino Resort who was appointed shortly before the decision to shut down the TCEDA.
‘What really bothers me is blaming the failure of the (TCEDA) on the city because members questioned how it was going …” Garaventa said. “Open government always works best in the sunshine.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.