The uproar over the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority has unnecessarily turned into an ugly mandate on one person — Executive Director Larry Cope.
To be sure, some of what the Tuolumne County Grand Jury found about Cope’s work is troubling, but focusing on that solely shortchanges the community’s opportunity to have a conversation about economic development as a whole and how to establish a vibrant effort going forward.
At the TCEDA Governing Board meeting Wednesday night, business owner after business owner rose to talk about the extensive effort Cope made for them and his expansive knowledge of business. We expect nothing less of someone with his experience.
The Grand Jury did not say Cope had never helped anyone or was not responsible for bringing businesses to Tuolumne County. What they said was there should be some measurable way for county and city government to gauge the expenditure. There must be transparency.
The people — taxpayers — must have some way to decide whether their money has been spent wisely. The Grand Jury was left with incomplete information — such as evidence about what work Cope did during the four weeks he was in Europe — that causes the average person to think their money is not being spent wisely.
The county created a list of all he did while he was away — from website development to talking the elected officials to helping business prospects. Like so many jobs, heading an EDA is all consuming with no regular business hours, even on vacation.
But here’s the thing, if, in fact, there had been a proper accounting of businesses helped and recruited — a measurable outcome — most people would or could be convinced of the importance and effectiveness of the agency.
This is why an audit must be completed. There was lots of talk Wednesday about the cost — some saying $10,000 or more for a complete audit.
Last Monday at Sonora City Council, Craig Pedro, the county administrator, suggested a freebie from California Local Economic Development. This is an agency that has been in touch with TCEDA since the authority was formed nine years ago and that reviewed progress on its goals after three years.
CALED offers a great deal of expertise on economic development, to be sure, but hiring it in no way meets the recommendation of the Grand Jury for an independent management audit.
Independent being the key word.
Perhaps this is a wake up call for all officials that they are public servants — accountable to the people who pay their salaries.
But again, this is not about one particular individual. Cope’s is not a lifetime appointment. He will leave or retire at some point.
This is an opportunity for the Board of Supervisors, Sonora City Council, the governing board and all community members interested in growing our economy to stop, think about what they want this place to become and work toward that goal.
Implement checks and balances for spending, increase oversight and work together. Cope has managed an agency with a big responsibility almost singlehandedly. Economic development is not a one-person shop.
Let’s use the Grand Jury report as the beginning of a conversation, not as a wedge to further divide people.