Rarely is a meeting more important than one taking place on Wednesday evening.
That’s when the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority Governing Board will discuss how to respond to the Tuolumne County Grand Jury’s criticism of their oversight of the agency and their executive director’s work habits and results.
This is a public meeting. This is your chance to tell this board — County Supervisors John Gray and Sherri Brennan, Sonora Mayor Jim Garaventa, Sonora Councilwoman Connie Williams, HealthLitNow President Barry Hillman, Executive Director of Mother Lode Job Training Dave Thoeny and attorney Jim Gianelli — what you think has been accomplished by this agency that spends $460,000 a year of taxpayer money and what you think should have been accomplished.
The board is ready for a crowd. They’ve moved the meeting from a small room in the agency’s office to the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors’ chambers on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center at 2 S. Green St. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.
The reason this is so important is economic development — or lack thereof — flows into every single facet of this community. Taxes increase when businesses locate here. People move here for jobs. They spend money in stores, buy houses. And our schools, which have faced a startling decrease in enrollment over the past decade, become healthy and vibrant.
Economic development in its purest form means getting out and competing with other communities to bring in the sorts of businesses that will pay well and truly add heft to the economy. It’s finding land that is developable and pushing for collaboration among everyone who can make it easier for a business to locate here — government, utilities, property owners.
In November, the Economic Development Authority reported the executive director had helped bring in nearly $400 million in investments with more than 2,000 jobs paying an average of $20 per hour.
Where are these jobs? We don’t know officially because they won’t say, citing a provision in the state’s public records act that allows agencies like them to keep secret proprietary information and trade secrets of private companies they deal with.
But what we’re talking about here is not proprietary in any way. If the business is here, it’s operating in plain view and therefore can be counted. Point to the specific businesses. Over the years, we’ve heard about the authority helping to fill vacant store properties and a Dairy Queen franchise. What else?
We’re not saying it’s not true, just that everyone should demonstrate the value of their work.
The authority wouldn’t spell it out for the grand jury either. The authority said there is no database of businesses served, issues addressed, or lessons learned.
The grand jury interviewed 23 people, reviewed a raft of documents and attended board meetings during its review, which began last fall. They recommended hiring an independent firm to look at whether the agency is evaluating performance of staff, fully watching out for travel and entertainment expenses. Also, how to balance rights of businesses versus needs of the community to know whether its tax dollars are spent wisely.
Because of the grand jury, we know Executive Director Larry Cope signs off on his own travel and expense payments and that he was in England from Sept. 11 through Oct. 9 — four days listed as vacation, the rest “comp time and remote working.”
Cope’s base salary is $163,634, which includes $8,400 allowance for a car and cell phone. If his contract is terminated before it expires, he gets up to six months of pay.
Supervisor Gray, who chairs the authority board, told reporter Alex MacLean the grand jury findings are “pretty simple to answer.”
“The important question is are we doing a good job? All you have to do is talk with the people who have worked with Larry on specific projects over the years,” Gray said. “That’s where I want to put my energy — how good of a job are we doing?”
Now it’s time for the community to tell him.