[Tuolumne County] Sonora city officials: Management audit should be done on Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority

Sonora City Council members sent a strong message to Tuolumne County supervisors and the Economic Development Board Monday night: fix the problems outlined in a scathing Grand Jury report or they will consider running their own business recruiting effort.

Council member after council member related their own concerns and those they’ve heard from constituents about lax management and no defined results from the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.

The Grand Jury reported in June that the authority board had allowed its executive director to sign his own expense reports and claim work time while on a month-long trip to England. The jury also noted it had not been given verification for the authority’s claims to having a role in $400 million in investments with more than 2,000 jobs paying an average of $20 per hour.

The jury recommended a management audit to look at the agency’s checks and balances on travel and entertainment expenses, metrics to evaluate performance, and policies on disclosure of interactions with private businesses.

At the end of a three-and-a-half-hour meeting Monday night, the City Council directed their attorney to research whether they could withhold their share of the funds for the authority – $102,000 – until the audit is done. Tuolumne County pays most of the authority’s remaining $460,000 budget.

Mayor Jim Garaventa and other members said they are looking for firm action from the Economic Development Board in its response to the Grand Jury at a meeting Wednesday. The board will meet at 5:30 p.m. in county supervisor’s chambers, County Administration Center at 2 S. Green St.

Councilmember Mark Plummer, who made the motion to research withholding funds, said he wants to see what the city’s return on investment has been over the nine years since the city and county jointly agreed to pay for the TCEDA.

“The secret-cabal business – that is the sizzle that they sell you,” he said. “It has nothing to do with economic development. It’s all just potential.”

Councilmember Colette Such said, “The appearance here is bad. It needs to be cleaned up. The perception needs to be cleaned up.”

Garaventa said he was also concerned that some county supervisors were not taking the Grand Jury’s findings and recommendations seriously.

Craig Pedro, the county administrator, suggested to the City Council that they join with the Board of Supervisors to ask the California Association for Local Economic Development to conduct the management audit. The supervisors have not considered the idea yet, but Pedro said he had permission from Chairman John Gray, who also chairs the TCEDA board, to tell the council about the idea.

Pedro said he had talked with the head of the association and was told a group could begin by September and have a report in November.

Pedro said the association was helpful when the TCEDA was formed and afterwards assessed whether the TCEDA had met its goals after three years. They are also willing to conduct the audit for free, Pedro said.

He said the association would be able to ascertain the proper policies and procedures for travel and expenses, address the issue of keeping business prospects information confidential and help set objectives and goals.

His idea immediately ran into questions from Plummer and Such, who wanted to know what TCEDA Executive Director Larry Cope’s relationship was with the association and whether this would be an impartial audit.

Pedro said it would.

“I don’t know anyone better,” he said.

Such responded, “We can’t get this wrong and still have economic development. There is a serious lack of trust.”

Former City Councilmember George Segarini, who served for four years on the TCEDA board, defended the board, saying the board provided proper oversight.

“That board is a very responsible board,” he said.

Others in the audience thought otherwise.

“The TCEDA board is so negligent in their oversight,” said Barbara Desslar.

In the end, the council directed City Administrator Tim Miller to draft a response to the grand jury saying the council agrees an audit should be done and that if the California Association of Local Economic Development cannot do a full independent management audit someone else should be hired.

The council also directed city staff to develop a response to the Grand Jury that they would seek public comment on the possibility of raising the sales tax for road improvements.

Formal action on the city’s response to the grand Jury’s recommendations for the audit and sales tax will be made at a future board meeting.

In other action, the council endorsed the Stockton Road site for two new bus stops over a site on Washington Street.

People attending the meeting who spoke said they liked the Stockton Road site best but quite a few people said they didn’t like either and wondered why the council had only two choices.

The project is part of a $1.8 million transit project funded by the state and was originally proposed in the Vision Sonora Plan adopted by the council in 2013.

August 6, 2018

The Union Democrat

By Lyn Riddle

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