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Start the Presses: It's about guidelines, not gotcha

December 25, 2010|By Dan Evans

City attorneys issued a notice on Wednesday that they were culling together documents in response to our latest request for employee bonus-payout information, essentially the same request they denied on Dec. 9.

People around here clearly agree with our request, and many say they have urged city officials to release this public information. After my column ran last week, I received dozens of phone calls and e-mails from Burbank and Glendale residents who were supportive of our position. The paper itself has received numerous letters to the editor, all in favor of disclosure.

To recap: We made a request to see an accounting of all forms of compensation provided to all Burbank city employees since 2007. That is, base pay, overtime, loans, bonuses or whatever.

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During the 2009-10 fiscal year, Burbank provided $1 million worth of "pay for performance" bonuses to its employees. These purely discretionary payments occurred at a time when the city faced millions in budgetary shortfalls. There is $1.89 million budgeted for bonuses in the current fiscal year.

The position of the city attorney's office has been that the release of this information would show which employees are better than their peers — as they were the ones that received the bonus. As a result, it would also indicate which employees are less than stellar — the poor unfortunates who received only a paycheck from their almost-impossible-to-be-fired-or-laid-off employ.

Releasing the information, the argument goes, would be tantamount to releasing performance evaluations, something that is clearly protected from disclosure. This is a well-thought-out and logical argument. It is also completely incorrect.

A 2007 California Supreme Court decision explicitly rejects this. Chief Justice Ronald George, who penned the opinion, said public employees simply do not have an expectation of privacy when it comes to how much they earn.

"It is difficult to imagine a more critical time for public scrutiny of its governmental decision-making process than when the latter is determining how it shall spend public funds," he wrote in International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 v. Superior Court.

I suspect the city attorney's office is concerned that if they do release the information, they will face lawsuits from city employees for doing so.

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