[Tuolumne County] Future of TCEDA in limbo

Blog note: this article is the latest that references a grand jury report about the TCEDA.

Action taken by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday could lead to the dissolution of a 10-year-old partnership with the Sonora City Council aimed at fostering economic development in the area.

The board voted 4-1 at public meeting to give the council an additional 60 days to decide whether it wants to remain a partner in the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, which was formed by the two governments through a joint powers agreement in 2008.

A resolution unanimously passed by the council on Dec. 3 asked the county to provide an additional 90 days, or else the city would automatically withdraw from the pact by the end of the year.

City Administrator Tim Miller said as he was leaving the meeting on Tuesday that he will be submitting a notice for the city to withdraw from the TCEDA, unless Mayor Jim Garaventa or a majority of the city council calls for a special meeting before Dec. 31 and directs him to do otherwise.

Garaventa said after the meeting that he did not yet know whether he or a majority of the council would call for a special meeting.

“With respect to the TCEDA, the city considers the issues that have been raised a lot more significant than the county does,” Miller said. “I have not seen a lot of progress made on that, nor has the council.”

Miller was referring to the issues raised by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury, which spent months investigating the agency and detailed its findings in its annual report that was released at the end of June.

The report described the TCEDA as a “very informal agency with few standard operating processes or best practice procedures,” in addition to a lack of recordkeeping and transparency that makes it difficult to hold the agency accountable.

“What I think is important to the city council is there needs to be more oversight and accountability, there needs to be more transparency, more fiscal responsibility, and ways in which the success of the organization can be measured,” Miller said.

Recommendations from the jury’s report resulted in the TCEDA Governing Board agreeing to pay for independent audits of the agency’s finances and management practices at a combined cost of about $41,000.

Miller said the city asked for the 90 additional days as opposed to 60 because the audits aren’t expected to be completed until sometime in January.

However, county officials warned the board on Tuesday that extending the deadline to April 1 could create a difficult situation for them as they begin the process of developing the budget for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Several supervisors on Tuesday put most of the blame for the TCEDA’s woes on clashes between personalities that had contributed to dissension between the city and county in recent years.

Some council members who have served or are currently serving on the TCEDA Governing Board have spoken of feeling like a “stepchild” to the county and having their concerns and ideas largely ignored.

District 4 Supervisor John Gray said there was a weak relationship between the two governments when he first got elected to the board in 2008, but that was improved by the formation of the TCEDA.

The city and county have worked on several projects since that time, including the $4 million widening of Mono Way and $1 million widening of the intersection at Greenley Road and Mono Way to accommodate the development of Adventist Health Sonora’s cancer center at the corner.

“Unfortunately, there’s been some personality changes throughout this history that has hurt the relationship between the city and county,” Gray said. “It really saddens me that we’ve gotten into this position … mostly because of personalities, not action.”

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt was the only board member who voted against granting the extra time to the city. When asked if it was because he thought the request should be denied, he said the issues between the city and county went “deeper” than that.

“They need to be big boys and girls and honor their commitments,” he said. “The relationship is broken and needs to be fixed.”

Hanvelt also scoffed at the council for giving the board an ultimatum.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer said he believed the public was “sick and tired of character assassination” and denounced criticisms of Larry Cope, executive director of the TCEDA, whom he has defended in the past.

The jury reported the authority’s board had allowed Cope to sign his own expense reports and claim work time while on a month-long trip to England, as well as use public funds intended for entertaining clients and business prospects to pay for the meals of county supervisors, officials, and TCEDA board members themselves.

Rodefer believed the blame for the issues should rest on the board, which consists of two county supervisors, two city council members, and three at-large members, as opposed to Cope.

“The city bears equal responsibility for the current state of affairs with the TCEDA for good, bad, or indifferent,” he said.

Rodefer also said that the city should be treated as an equal partner in TCEDA, despite contributing less than a third of as much money each year as the county toward the agency’s roughly $460,000 a year budget.

The city contributes about $103,000 to the budget, or about 23 percent, while the county funds most of the rest under the terms of the agreement.

District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce didn’t hold back as he spoke about his feelings.

Royce said the demands from some critics for evidence of the value that the TCEDA has provided to the city and county were misplaced because economic development is a “long game.”

A person in the audience shouted “inappropriate” at Royce after he said “this is bulls---” while expressing frustration about the money spent on the TCEDA over the past few months.

“That’s what I’m good at,” he replied.

The costs include the two independent audits and $23,500 in attorney fees to settle a lawsuit filed against the TCEDA in early June by Ken Perkins, of Sonora, after he was denied access to records of businesses that have been helped by the agency.

Perkins ultimately prevailed and settled the lawsuit last month after the TCEDA was forced to release the documents, though all the names of businesses were redacted.

Royce pointed at Perkins, who was seated near the back of the board’s chambers on Tuesday, and accused him of attacking Cope for “personal motivations.”

Perkins later denied the allegation when asked about it after the meeting.

“Listening to all five of them (county supervisors) talk about personalities and corrections that need to be made, I don’t think they get it,” he said. “This is about governmental transparency and accountability.”

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who represents the city and some of the surrounding area, said she didn’t believe the audits will produce a “smoking gun” and recommended offering the council an additional 60 days as opposed to 90.

Brennan said she wants to hear more from the city about what it would like out of economic development.

“I really find myself at odds because I think this JPA floats all boats, but it takes partners to do that,” she said. “Other than just an opportunity to review the financial and management audits, I’d like to really know what the city wants in the end.”

December 18, 2018

The Union Democrat

By Alex MacLean

County: