The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors did not make a decision on Tuesday about hiring an economic development director.

All five elected supervisors gathered at 2 p.m. in the board’s chambers and took public comments before going into a private closed session to interview finalists for the job.

They returned from the closed session later Tuesday for an open public meeting about fire protection services, but announced there was no action taken earlier with regard to the economic development director position.

California law allows governing bodies to exclude the public from meetings under certain circumstances, such as personnel matters, property sale negotiations and pending lawsuits.

The law also requires them to publicly report any action taken in a closed session that affects the employment status of a public employee.
County Counsel Sarah Carrillo, the board’s chief legal advisor, said she couldn’t confirm when a final decision about the position would be announced.

Martin Blake, a 40-year county resident who lives in Columbia, addressed the board before it went into closed session and asked whether the new director’s contract would include a clause about oversight.

Blake referenced reports that Larry Cope, former chief executive officer of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, operated with little oversight in the 10 years he worked for the agency.

“Even the president of the United States has to face voters once every four years,” Blake said.

The TCEDA was a joint powers authority formed by the county in partnership with the City of Sonora, which made it a separate entity from both governments legally speaking.

Oversight of the TCEDA was provided by a governing board that consisted of two county supervisors, two city council members, and three private individuals from the business community.

A Grand Jury report released in June last year stated the TCEDA’s structure as a joint powers authority allowed it to operate with different policies than the city and county, which contributed to the concerns about oversight and accountability.

Carrillo said the contract for the new position will use the standard template for county employees that includes specific provisions regarding oversight, including performance evaluations conducted by the Board of Supervisors at least once a year.

Although the board will select the person to appoint, Carrillo noted that the county administrator will manage the day-to-day operations of the new director.

“So there will be significant oversight,” she said.

There were five candidates who applied for the position and met the minimum qualifications, but one dropped out of the running before being interviewed.

Local business leaders and county officials were scheduled to interview the final four candidates on Monday and recommend the top two for the board to consider.

County Administrator Tracie Riggs said in an interview last week that one of the applicants who met the minimum qualifications was a local person.

The board created the new permanent position in May after unsuccessfully attempting to find someone who would do the job on a temporary basis for up to three months.

The annual base salary for the position will start at $99,382 per year and top out at $121,306, which doesn’t include health or retirement benefits.

There hasn’t been a dedicated program for economic development in the county since Cope left as the head of the TCEDA in March.

Cope’s contract was terminated after the board and city unanimously voted to shut down the TCEDA on Feb. 19 in the face of public pressure that stemmed from the findings of last year’s Grand Jury report.

Prior to leaving, Cope was receiving an annual base salary of $163,625. He was initially hired at $93,594 per year in 2009.

Cope began working last week as economic development director for the city of Hawarden, located in a rural part of northwest Iowa along the border with South Dakota.

Cope will be paid an annual salary of $65,000, Hawarden City Administrator Mike DeBruin said in an email.

Cope will not receive any benefits beyond what’s offered to all other employees of the city, which includes vacation time, sick leave and holiday pay.

Hawarden city employees do not receive any allowances for cars, cell phones, Internet, or other perks, DeBruin said.

While working for the TCEDA, Cope was receiving — on top of his base salary — $500 per month for use of his personal vehicle and $200 per month for cell phone and Internet service.

DeBruin said city of Hawarden employees also don’t receive severance packages, though Cope’s contract with the TCEDA entitled him to six months of his salary if it was terminated prematurely.

Cope received more than $120,000 upon leaving the TCEDA, which included $81,816 in severance pay and just shy of $40,000 for unused vacation time.

The city of Hawarden looked at 23 candidates for the economic development director and selected Cope because of his background and experience in the field, DeBruin said.

“We wanted a person who was knowledgeable and well versed in economic development,” DeBruin said. “We are hopeful that Mr. Cope will be able to assist our businesses with retention, to assist our downtown with innovative ideas to make business owners flourish in our downtown, add business to our industrial park, and to create programs for new housing in our community.”

DeBruin declined to comment on whether anything about Cope’s tenure in Tuolumne County came up during the interview process, nor give his personal thoughts on the matter.

DeBruin said he read news articles about the situation with the TCEDA and spoke with people in Tuolumne County and Sonora who had “many great things to say about Mr. Cope and their experience with him there.”

“I have not read anything in the articles about Mr. Cope doing anything illegal. The one resounding thing I did read from the Grand Jury report was the lack of oversight,” DeBruin said. “I believe we can provide the oversight necessary and work with Mr. Cope to bring positive results to Hawarden.”

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

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