[Tuolumne County] Perkins declares win in lawsuit against TCEDA

[T
Agency blasts critics who don’t attend meetings

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report about TCEDA.

The Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority announced the official settlement of a transparency lawsuit filed in June by Sonora resident Ken Perkins that has cost taxpayers more than $23,500 in attorney fees.

The costs include $7,203 that will be paid to Perkins’ lawyer as part the settlement, along with about $16,554 in bills from the outside law firm the TCEDA Governing Board hired to defend itself in the suit.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo stated that attorneys in her office have also spent 135 hours between the lawsuit and responding to California Public Records Act requests filed by Perkins that were the genesis of the dispute.

Carrillo said the total amount of time would equate to $16,875 if her office billed the TCEDA at standard rate of $125 an hour, but her office does not charge the entity for legal services.

“The TCEDA regrets the need to spend taxpayer money settling this lawsuit, but when a Public Records Act lawsuit results in the release of public records, even if redacted, the law requires the public agency pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs,” stated a press release issued by the TCEDA on Thursday announcing the final settlement.

Larry Cope, the TCEDA’s executive director since 2009, was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday.

Perkins filed his lawsuit on June 11 in Tuolumne County Superior Court after being denied records of services the TCEDA has provided to businesses since the agency was formed by the county and City of Sonora in 2008.

The agency claimed the records would expose confidential information about private companies that received assistance in denying Perkins’ requests.

In response to the lawsuit, the TCEDA released heavily redacted spreadsheets that showed estimates on jobs created, average wages, and capital investment from projects the agency provided assistance to or was actively working on.

Perkins subsequently demanded that the agency unredact the names of businesses who had completed projects with help from the TCEDA. The agency released a separate list on Aug. 29 with names of 65 companies from the redacted spreadsheet of 84 completed projects.

None of the documents released provided details on the level of involvement that the agency had with each project.

All of the TCEDA board members and Cope have declined to comment on the lawsuit while it was still ongoing, though the press release issued on Thursday contained a strongly worded paragraph blasting Perkins and other critics for not attending the agency’s public meetings.

The release also criticized Perkins decision to sue, in addition to a number of letters to the editor he wrote in the months leading up to it, as a “crusade against and personal attack” on Cope.

“It is easy in today’s world to criticize public officials via letters to the Editor or other technological means, but it takes much more courage to attend meetings, engage in productive intellectual debates or even volunteer one’s time to this type of organization to see improvements made,” the release stated.

The release further stated that the TCEDA has not been conducting business in secret, and the public is invited to its meetings that are typically held at 9:30 a.m. on the second Friday of the month.

Meetings were previously held in a small conference room at the TCEDA’s rented offices in downtown Sonora, though they’ve been held since August in the larger county Board of Supervisors chambers due to increased public scrutiny on the agency.

Just weeks after Perkins filed his lawsuit, the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury released its annual report detailing a monthslong investigation of the TCEDA that found similar complaints about a potential lack of transparency and recordkeeping within the agency.

The jury’s report also identified potential problems related to management oversight, budget control, the terms of the executive director’s contract, and the structure of the TCEDA as a joint-powers authority with its own rules of governance that in some cases don’t follow the best practices of the city and county.

Nearly all of the agency’s $460,000 annual budget is funded 77 percent by the county and 23 percent by the city.

At least 90 people attended a TCEDA board meeting on Aug. 8 that was the first one held after the release of the grand jury report at the end of June. Some at the meeting expressed deep support for the agency, while others demanded action on the potential problems reported by the jury.

“It is a simple fact that those most critical of the organization have not actually attended meetings until this lawsuit and the Grand Jury report were at issue,” the TCEDA stated in the settlement announcement on Thursday. “The TCEDA welcomes the public to attend, participate and provide meaningful feedback as to what the agency should be doing to achieve economic development for the City and County.”

County Supervisor John Gray, who has served as chairman of the TCEDA board since 2014, said the press release was drafted collectively with input form the board, Cope and County Counsel’s Office.

Gray reiterated that Perkins had never attended a TCEDA meeting and twice declined an invitation to discuss his concerns with County Administrator Craig Pedro, who serves on the agency’s board in a non-voting capacity.

“He did not contribute to economic development,” Gray said of Perkins. “We have attorney fees, we have county counsel time, many hours of board time, many hours of Larry Cope’s time, and all of that could have been spent doing good.”

When asked whether the costs could have been avoided by releasing the documents to Perkins after he requested them, Gray said it is a matter of opinion.

“There’s a way to solve these things without suing someone because you didn’t get the paper you wanted,” Gray said. “And factually, what are you going to do with it anyway?”

Perkins responded to the statements in the press release by saying that he doesn’t have a personal vendetta against Cope and has never actually met him in person. He contended that the lawsuit was the result of the County Counsel’s Office claiming the information he had requested were trade secrets.

“I simply disagreed and asked the county counsel to reconsider their position in numerous written requests, but they held firm on their legal interpretation of the law,” he said. “I sought legal advice and was told that the documents under California law were not trade secrets, and my only recourse at that time was to file a lawsuit.”

Perkins noted the similarities between his claims and some of the potential concerns about transparency identified by the grand jury.

As for the allegation about not attending the TCEDA’s public meetings, Perkins said that not everyone has the time to attend them and must rely on written communications. He said he’s sent hundreds of documents to the agency over the last two years seeking answers to his questions and received no response.

“The bottom line is I was right, they were mistaken, and I won,” he said.

Perkins said his next goal is to convince the Sonora City Council to withdraw funding from the TCEDA. He believes the $103,000 a year that the city pays to the agency could be put to better use.

One aspect of the settlement involved getting Cope to sign a sworn statement that no other documents existed related to Perkins’ request than the redacted spreadsheets released in August.

Cope has said the spreadsheets on completed projects were compiled in 2016 at the request of the board based on his own memory of assistance he’s provided.

Corona-based attorney Chad Morgan, who represented Perkins in the lawsuit, said he’s handled similar disputes with public agencies for the past five years mostly in Southern California and found the lack of documentation in the TCEDA’s case to be relatively unique.

“Typically, my clients are looking for emails and other things that end up with thousands of pages of documents and we’re looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said. “Mr. Cope kind of made all of the claims he did without really much documentation to support it. And when Mr. Perkins requested it, rather than saying he didn’t have much documents, which he didn’t, he tried to say they were exempt and I’m not going to give it to you.”

November 2, 2018

The Union Democrat

By Alex MacLean

County: