HAWARDEN—The city of Hawarden stands beside its decision to hire Larry Cope as economic development director despite concerns being voiced by his former place of employment in Senora, based in Tuolumne County, CA.
Cope’s first day with the city of Hawarden was Monday, June 3. He was chosen out of 23 applicants to fill the new economic development director position.
“Right now, his greatest weakness are those from his past that are trying to destroy him and his reputation,” said Hawarden city administrator Mike DeBruin.
DeBruin made this remark in regards to the many e-mails and news stories shared with him by staff at The Union Democrat, the local newspaper of the county Cope worked for the past 10 years.
Cope was hired in Hawarden as an at-will employee for the city with no contract, same as all city staff, according to DeBruin. His salary is $65,000 annually, well below what Cope was reported earning as chief executive officer of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority before he left in March. There he was making $163,625.
DeBruin said Cope’s vast knowledge of economic development and his experience made Cope stand out among the applicants for the position.
The allegation against Cope regarding how he spent the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority’s money was discussed during the interview process.
A February 2019 article from The Union Democrat details issues with Cope’s previous spending habits: “The chief executive officer of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority spent just over $100,000 in 2017 and 2018 on trips to such places as Boston and Las Vegas, on meals with county officials and business prospects and various items for his agency including three Microsoft Surface tablets, a night vision camera, a drone and faux leather bar stools.”
It was reported that during a review of Cope’s daily activities, through the California Public Records Act, that Cope ate at least one meal nearly every weekday at taxpayer expense, usually with county officials. The article also states “his non-travel meals totaled just over $11,000 during those two years.”
The paper also cited a lack of oversight for Cope.
“Cope operates in a realm all his own. He approves his own expense reports and is free to stay in any hotel and spend well beyond the limits imposed on county officials’ daily meal charges when traveling, which in 2017 and 2018 were $10 for breakfast, $11 for lunch and $21 for dinner. In his 2017 records, Cope listed who he shared a meal with unless it was a business prospect, but his records for 2018 show only that it was a local partner, existing business/client, or prospect so it was impossible to know whether any meals were with county officials.”
Those expenditures were dramatically decreased in July 2018 after a grand jury questioned Cope’s spending, according to the article.
“In the first six months of the year, Cope spent just over $3,000 on meals at local eateries and slightly less than $550 in the last six months. Two-thirds of meals in 2017 were with a supervisor, a county official or a member of the Tuolumne Economic Development Authority Board.”
The investigation in California also showed Cope working nearly every weekend and on all holidays.
“In 2017, including 12 hours on Thanksgiving and all but four days during a monthlong trip to England.”
In the same article, it was written that “In 2017, Cope went to San Francisco seven times, twice to San Diego and Monterey, and once to Las Vegas, Sacramento, Santa Clara and Anderson. While at the California Economic Summit in San Diego from Nov. 11-14, he ordered room service for three nights at a total cost of $262. He made 18 trips from January to June 2018, and seven trips from July to December. They were to San Francisco three times, Markleeville, Pleasanton, Los Angeles and Tehachapi, southeast of Bakersfield.”
“The frequency of trips, locations of trips, types and nature and frequency of purchases, in my opinion, indicate a need for more oversight and accountability,” said Senora city administrator Tim Miller, “which is an issue that’s been raised by the public, by members of the council and by the grand jury.
“Those types of expenditures would clearly not be consistent with city policies and if not city policies — fiscally responsible behavior.”
‘Everybody can Google’
Cope was never charged with anything and his contract was terminated in February just before the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority was dissolved, according to a follow-up report from The Union Democrat.
Still, DeBruin thinks Cope was a good hire.
“Everybody can Google Larry Cope and find articles that are not very flattering of Larry, but if you also read some of the articles it appears that he had a huge lack of oversight on his board as well,” DeBruin said. “Larry was never accused of doing anything illegal.”
DeBruin said several articles note Cope seemed to always remain within budget. The city of Hawarden’s budget for economic development is $140,000.
“Secondly, what a ‘Google search’ will not tell you about Larry is that some of the references we talked to in Senora and the county he was from had nothing but glowing reviews and nothing but good things to say about Larry and how he has helped their community,” DeBruin said.
DeBruin said all references were checked.
“A lot of times when you are in public service, you’re a target,” DeBruin said. “A lot of times you can be in one place too long and you begin to attract negative things through groups that probably feel you are making to much, or you’re spending too much or what you are doing doesn’t necessarily belong in public service.”
DeBruin is confident he and the city council will be able to provide the oversight that “lacked” in Senora. He also is confident in his background check on Cope before Cope was offered the position.
DeBruin said the focus going forward is that the council, city staff and citizens of Hawarden wanted to hire someone who had experience in the economic development position and that was found in hiring Cope.
“The rest of the history with Larry in Hawarden, Iowa, has yet to be written,” DeBruin said. “People just have to wait and see where it goes. Hopefully, Larry can do some good things for us in Hawarden as he has done in California and Kansas before that and eventually those whom rose up against him in California will finally just leave us be . . . We will take it one day at a time. I think it’s going to be a good thing for Hawarden and hopefully, five years from now, we can see it.”