[Tuolumne County] Sonora elected officials stand down from TCEDA ultimatum

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

The Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority lives to see another day, or at least for two more months after the start of the new year.

At a special meeting Thursday afternoon, the Sonora City Council voted 5-0 to accept the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors offer for an additional 60 days from the current Dec. 31 deadline to decide whether it will remain a partner in the TCEDA.

“A 60-day extension doesn’t mean we’re still committed for another year to the EDA,” said Mayor Jim Garaventa, who called the special meeting a day earlier. “I think drawing more lines in the sand causes more conflict than resolution.”

The council passed a resolution on Dec. 3 asking the board for an additional 90 days from the year-end deadline, or else the city would automatically withdraw from the joint powers agreement with the county that formed the TCEDA in 2008.

Withdrawing from the agreement would effectively dissolve the TCEDA as a legal entity, according to county attorneys.

On Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 to offer the council 60 days after being told an additional month would put more work on county officials while they’re in the midst of the budgeting process for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

Outgoing District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt dissented from offering the 60 days and said he believes the council “need to be big boys and girls and honor their commitments.” He also scoffed at the city giving the county an ultimatum.

If the council had declined the board’s offer at the special meeting on Thursday, City Administrator Tim Miller and Deputy City Attorney Nubia Goldstein said the city would submit a notice of withdrawal from the TCEDA before the end of the year as directed in the Dec. 3 resolution.

Councilwoman Colette Such asked if there was a way to go back to the negotiating table with the county by standing firm on the request for 90 days, as opposed to immediately beginning the process of withdrawing from the organization.

“While theoretically the county could schedule a special meeting like the city council did, the realistic look at it is we’re at the end of the year where we’re literally running out of time and that’s not necessarily practical,” Goldstein said, adding that there’s no guarantee the board would even call for a special meeting before the end of the year.

The reason the council asked for 90 days was to review the results of independent audits that are being conducted on the TCEDA’s finances and management practices, which are expected to be completed by the end of January.

The audits are the result of a recommendation by both the council and county supervisors in response to the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury annual report released in June that found a number of potential concerns related to how the agency was being operated and overseen.

Though most of the TCEDA’s $460,000 annual budget comes from public funds provided by the city and county, the jury reported that the agency lacked the types of standard operating procedures and financial controls that both governments have to follow. 

The city’s contribution to the TCEDA’s budget is about $103,000 each year, while the county’s is about $344,000.

A lack of such processes and effective oversight led to some questionable uses of public funds, according to the jury.

In one example, the jury reported that more than half of the organization’s budget intended for entertaining business clients and prospects had been used last year to purchase meals for elected county supervisors, government officials, and TCEDA board members themselves.

The jury also reported that the need for confidentiality on behalf of private companies receiving assistance from the TCEDA made it difficult for the public to hold the agency accountable.

Sonora residents Barbara Dresslar and David Morgan each spoke in favor of the council declining the board’s offer and leaving the agency.

Dresslar said she believed that triggering a reconfiguration of the TCEDA by withdrawing from the agreement would provide both governments a chance for a “fresh start,” especially considering some of the pointed comments that several supervisors directed toward the city at the meeting on Tuesday.

“The comments at the last board meeting indicated they still don’t get that there was fundamental flawed operation of TCEDA for a decade,” she said.

Leaving the TCEDA would allow the city to create an economic development department that had verifiable results and standards for management, Dresslar added.

Morgan said the reason city officials recommended the 90-day extension was to provide enough time for the city and TCEDA board to review the results of the audits and implement any changes that may come out of them.

The estimated completion date for the audits has already been pushed back from end of this month.

There were several other people at the meeting who have a stake in the conversations about the TCEDA but chose not to speak, including outgoing County Administrator Craig Pedro, incoming County Administrator Tracie Riggs, and former District 5 Supervisor Dick Pland.

Pland and Pedro were both founding members of the TCEDA in 2008.

Ken Perkins, of Sonora, was also at the meeting and didn’t speak. He sued the TCEDA in early June after being denied information on assistance the agency has provided to businesses over the years.

Perkins ultimately prevailed in the lawsuit when the TCEDA later released documents in August showing estimates on capital investments, jobs created and average wages from projects the agency has worked on, but none of the information was verifiable because the names of businesses were all redacted.

Councilwoman Connie Williams said she didn’t believe there was much more discussion to be had considering that the board effectively denied the council’s original request for 90 days.

“The bottom line is that we as a council made a decision, and the decision was that we asked for 90 days, which the Board of Supervisors could have very easily given us,” she said.

Williams has said she felt the city was treated like a “stepchild” while she served on the TCEDA Governing Board from 2016 to July of this year. She also has said she raised many of the same concerns as the jury during her tenure, but was effectively shut down by the other TCEDA board members.

Garaventa, who replaced Williams on the TCEDA board, said he “didn’t call a special meeting to say there’s no more discussion.”

Councilman Mark Plummer said he was concerned that the audits ultimately won’t do much to change the organization, but he’s “not quite as pessimistic” as he was in the past because there will be two new county supervisors taking their seats on Jan. 7.

“Seeing the audit reports would be a valuable tool, but we would probably be remiss if we just said out of hand that we’re going to do it and not consider them,” he said.

Mayor Pro-tem Matt Hawkins, who also joined the TCEDA board in July, said he’s had mixed emotions about the issue and believes that “good things” have come out of both Perkins’ lawsuit and the jury’s report.

Hawkins said he read about the comments made by county supervisors on Tuesday and didn’t feel it was the “most positive meeting,” but he believed the council owed it to city residents to take the 60 days as a matter of due diligence.

“Right now, we gotta work on relations with the county,” he said. “We need each other. We’re a county of less than 60,000 people, barely 50,000, and there’s infighting going on.”

Such said she believed the tone from some of the county supervisors at the meeting on Tuesday was “unacceptable, insulting and hostile,” but felt better after attending the TCEDA Governing Board’s meeting Thursday morning.

“It appeared the tone had completely changed,” she said.

Such added that it will be important for the audits to be completed in a timely manner given the shortened time frame, otherwise she believed the city won’t be able to move forward with the county on the partnership.

In an interview after the meeting, Such said she felt that Riggs, Pedro, and District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who represents the city and some surrounding areas, had set an example and were taking the city’s concerns into account.

Brennan made the initial motion at the meeting on Tuesday to offer the city the 60 days to “reflect and realize the importance of the TCEDA one more time.”

Williams said she believed the Board of Supervisors would have been “much more of a partner” had it given the council the full 90 days.

“I feel like that they felt that we gave them an ultimatum, I feel like they gave us an ultimatum, and that’s not a partnership,” she said.

However, Williams said she was “reluctantly” willing to go along with the rest of the council and accept the shortened time.

Plummer said he believed “reluctantly” was the word that applied to all of the council members.

December 21, 2018

The Union Democrat

By Alex MacLean

County: