The former CEO of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority received a one-time, lump-sum payment of $575,000 to settle a dispute with the county and City of Sonora over retirement benefits.
County Counsel Sarah Carrillo confirmed the amount in an email to The Union Democrat Tuesday and said that $192,000 was from contributions that Larry Cope himself made out of his own wages to his retirement fund while heading up the TCEDA for more than 10 years.
Carrillo said the rest was covered by payments both the county and city previously made toward Cope’s retirement benefits while he was still employed with the TCEDA, as well as interest that has accrued on those contributions.
Cope’s two part-time assistants also each received lump-sum payments totaling $76,000 combined to settle their retirement-benefit claims out of court.
“(The) TCEDA, the County and the City agreed to resolve this matter to eliminate the expense and uncertainty of administrative and civil litigation surrounding these matters,” Carrillo stated.
The benefits were the last remaining loose ends that had to be addressed before the county and city could fully dissolve the TCEDA, which has been inactive since 2019 due to a controversy sparked by a Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury investigation.
Both the county Board of Supervisors and Sonora City Council unanimously voted at their respective public meetings on Tuesday to approve resolutions officially dissolving the agency for good. County Supervisor Ryan Campbell was absent during the board’s vote.
While the board approved its resolution without comment or discussion, members of the City Council spent some time reflecting on the agency and its downfall before casting their votes.
“It’s a bittersweet day for us that, yes, we get to put this thing to bed and put it behind us,” Councilman Matt Hawkins said. “But, at the same time, it also ends what was an opportunity for the city and county to work together.”
Tensions between the city and county over the TCEDA fallout got so bad that former County Supervisor Karl Rodefer suggested at a public election debate in 2020 that Hawkins should face criminal charges for allegedly leaking information from a closed session about the agency.
Hawkins noted that all of the county supervisors who defended the TCEDA, including Rodefer, are no longer serving on the board either through retirement or losing bids for reelection since the controversy erupted.
The TCEDA was formed by the city and county in 2008 under the goal of attracting new businesses to the area and retaining those that already exist.
In the summer of 2018, the Civil Grand Jury released its annual report that detailed an investigation of the TCEDA which uncovered how Cope was allowed to spend taxpayer money on travel and expenses with little oversight or metrics to measure the effectiveness of his efforts.
The Grand Jury’s report was also preceded by a series of letters to the editor in The Union Democrat written by former Tuolumne County resident Ken Perkins, who successfully sued the TCEDA for public documents related to the agency’s performance.
A subsequent investigation by The Union Democrat into the agency’s expenses for 2017 and 2018 found that Cope spent just over $100,000 during those two years on trips to such places as Boston and Las Vegas, on meals with county officials and business prospects and various items for his agency, and equipment purchases that included three Microsoft Surface tablets, a night vision camera, a drone and faux leather bar stools.
The same day that The Union Democrat’s story about its investigation was published on Feb. 19, 2019, the county Board of Supervisors and City Council each unanimously decided to pull the plug on the agency.
Hawkins said on Tuesday that many people have laid the blame for the TCEDA’s problems solely on Cope, though he argued that the elected officials who served on the agency’s governing board were also at fault for failing to provide adequate oversight.
“The way government is set up, as in the City Council or the Board of Supervisors, it also lays at the feet of those board members,” Hawkins said.
Former Councilwoman Connie Williams, who died in 2020 from ALS, was also credited by Hawkins with being among the first to raise concerns about the TCEDA while she was serving on the agency’s governing board from 2016 to 2018.
At a public meeting in May 2019, when the council voted to call for the release of a County Counsel’s Office report on conflicts of interest among TCEDA board members, Williams described the agency as a “good old boys club.”
“Larry worked at the pleasure of the board, and you can wrap yourself around all of your board members to get what you want,” Williams said at the time. “That’s exactly what happened.”
The report on the conflicts of interest was never released due to a stalemate among the remaining four TCEDA board members.
Sonora’s current mayor, Councilman Mark Plummer, said on Tuesday that he felt the idea behind the TCEDA was a “very worthy effort,” but he too started calling for metrics to justify the money invested in the agency’s nearly $500,000 per year budget.
“It was strongly supported by a lot of people I really respect now, but it unfortunately did not work out so well,” he said. “Hopefully, going forward, we’ll have a more detailed objective of where we want the city going for economic development, and then we’ll start putting in place what we need to do to make that happen.”
Other matters involving the TCEDA that had to be resolved before the agency could be fully dissolved included splitting up its remaining assets between the city and county (see chart in the slides above for full list of assets and whether they went to the city or county).
Cope received more than $120,000 in severance pay and unused vacation when his employment contract was terminated in March 2019 after the votes to shut down the agency. He was one of the highest paid employees in local government at $163,625 per year, up from $93,594 when he was hired 10 years earlier.
In June 2019, Cope was hired to serve as the economic development director for the City of Hawarden in northwest Iowa at a base salary of $65,000 per year plus benefits. He resigned from the position in May 2021 to return to the private sector, according to published media reports.
The lingering issue over Cope’s retirement benefits stemmed from a preliminary decision in September 2019 by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, that he was incorrectly included in the county’s contract with the pension fund because the TCEDA was a separate legal entity.
Cope sent a letter in October 2019 through his attorney threatening to sue the city and county if they didn’t fund the retirement benefits that he was promised for his time with the TCEDA.
The county initially appealed CalPERS’ decision, but Carrillo stated in the email on Tuesday that all parties decided on the lump-sum payments in exchange for “dismissal of the CalPERS appeals and waivers of any and all potential claims or actions against the entities.”
Carrillo stated that the county has since addressed the issue with its only other joint powers authority with the county, the Tuolumne County Transportation Council.
Cope could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Attorneys in the County Counsel's Office have collectively spent 454 hours on matters involving the TCEDA since Jan. 1, 2018, Carrillo said, which would come out to a total cost of $56,750 based on the $125 per hour rate that her office would have billed the agency for legal work.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4541.