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The Challenges Of Economic Development

I am a private citizen and volunteer board member of Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority and therefore have the perspective of an “insider” regarding core issues that have recently arisen with respect to TCEDA.

All of the issues raised by the Grand Jury will be reviewed by our board thoroughly and given our full and undivided attention. In the meantime, I cannot comment on these issues and ask only that the public withhold judgment until our full response is given.

My purpose of this summary is to discuss the core issues that are at the heart of the experiment that we call the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority. The public needs to understand that there are some fundamental balancing issues associated with any taxpayer funded economic development organization that make transparency and accountability a challenge. These challenges are as follows:

a. Transparency Challenge: How does a publicly—funded economic development organization keep confidential/private matters related to specific businesses it is trying to serve/recruit and at the same time have full transparency to the public? Almost by definition, an economic development executive director must work intimately with private businesses. These businesses have issues that need to be addressed, many of which are private and confidential. An executive director must gain the trust of individual business owners. His/her credibility and ability to help businesses depends on this high level of trust and confidentiality.

So what do we (the board of TCEDA) do when a taxpayer persistently and consistently assails the executive director with Freedom of Information Act requests (which are of course referred to County Counsel) time and time again, asking for what we believe to be confidential/private business information (eventually bringing a lawsuit demanding disclosure of such information), and thereby impugning the executive director’s and our board’s reputation, presenting an appearance to the public that TCEDA is a network of “good old boys” intentionally withholding information from the public? We decided (as a board) to invite “the taxpayer” to meet with the board publicly and come to meetings, or, if he did not want to do that, at least meet with one or two of us privately (Brown Act considerations here) and the one or two of us could explain what the real issues were here- that of balancing what we perceived as our business client’s confidentiality/privacy with the public need to know. We had nothing to hide. After all, our mission, our values, our work plan, and our budget- all these are transparent and available to public viewing. The taxpayer refused.

b. Accountability/Evaluation Challenge: The second real issue relates to accountability. How can the public evaluate the effectiveness of TCEDA? How can we as a board evaluate Larry Cope as the executive director of TCEDA? Since all of our meetings are public, there was no way Larry could provide the public (or even the board in a meeting) with specific confidential/private information regarding the projects/individual businesses he was working on/working with at our scheduled meetings without there being public disclosure. Therefore, the specific information about individual projects/business owner names was shared privately with each board member (Larry was simply meeting with individual board members to inform them as to specific projects that in no way constituted serial meetings as that term is defined in the Brown Act nor did it constitute “wining and dining” board members). These meetings allowed us as board members to be able to understand and evaluate (as a board) Larry’s work and his effectiveness in relation to our work plan. But these individual meetings that might inform us as board members did little to inform the public. How do we accomplish the balancing act of developing sufficient evaluation criteria without being able to actually divulge confidential/private information of our business clients? Yes, we need the trust of our business clients, but trust of the community is equally important. We are obviously in need of re-evaluating how to better develop evaluation criteria of TCEDA for the public consumption. This has perplexed us from the beginning.

A Call To Action: Public Discussion About Transparency and Accountability of TCEDA. We have a strategic planning meeting of the board (at least a half-day session) that is coming up in the very near future (this has been planned for the 10 year anniversary of the organization for some time). It is at this meeting that these core issues confronting the organization can be dealt with, openly, honestly, and with facilitated public discussion. TCEDA has been an experiment that is innovative, bold and exciting — for even attempting it the community should be proud. But can it work with the transparency and accountability challenges cited above? Is it worth the tax dollars expended? We may even need a third party facilitator/accommodator to lead this discussion and keep it on track (I am personally concerned that certain detractors want nothing more than the destruction of TCEDA and might attempt to derail sincere efforts to actually improve/reform it). It is my strong opinion that at such a strategic planning session, these core issues will be addressed and resolved and that TCEDA is a very much needed organization in this county. I personally would much rather undertake this action than engage in expenditure of taxpayer funds in defending a legal action.

I have worked (volunteered) on many non-profit boards in this community the past 40 or so years. I am humbled by being able to work with so many (past and present) intelligent, high integrity, selfless board members as I have encountered on TCEDA. I have never worked with an executive director as hard working, dedicated and passionate about what he does as Larry Cope.

Jim Gianelli is a lawyer in Sonora.