I’m amazed, frankly. City scandals from Bell to Vernon abound. The city of Burbank itself faces seemingly endless police litigation and questions about nepotism within every one of its departments.
Despite all this, the good people inside that beautiful art deco building on Olive Avenue remain as tone-deaf as the brightly decorated light standards outside.
In their latest display of low-wattage, City Hall officials are refusing to release information regarding bonuses — or “pay for performance,” as the city attorney’s office prefers it be termed. Whatever it’s called, this action is illegal, and this paper will be enforcing its rights. First, though, a little background.
On Dec. 1, reporter Gretchen Meier sent a request to the city asking that it release information on who has received a bonus between 1999 and 2010, and how much each individual received. Prompting this request was a release of similar information by the city of Glendale, which posted the data on its website.
Instead of providing the name, title and amount of each public employee receiving payouts, Burbank officials instead decided to provide information only from the 2009-10 fiscal year, broken down solely by employee group. Even this limited data was fascinating: Employees received $1 million in completely discretionary pay that year, despite the fact that the city faced a multimillion-dollar budget gap.
Let me repeat: City workers received extra money despite the fact that the city itself faced severe budget issues.
According to the city, employees must receive an overall rating of “exceptional” to qualify for a merit-based bonus. Not all Burbank employees are eligible. Police officers and firefighters, for example, cannot receive such payments.
In all, Burbank employs about 1,500 people. Of those, 874 were eligible to receive a bonus in 2009-10. Of those, 445, or just over 50%, received the payout.
Really? More than half of those eligible workers were not poor, average or even good? Half were exceptional? Does this make any sense to anyone?
In October, the chairman of the Civil Service Board told the City Council that every Burbank department has individuals related to one another. This is troubling.
Official city policy states that relatives may not supervise one another, and presumably, then, would not be able to give an “exceptional” performance rating and its discretionary bonus. But we don’t know that’s not happening. Why? Because we don’t know who received a bonus, or how much that person received.
Juli Scott, the chief assistant city attorney, denied Meier’s request on Dec. 9, stating that disclosing the bonus amounts by individual would violate that person’s privacy rights.
But public employees, as they are paid by the public, have no expectation of privacy when it comes to salary. That means all forms of compensation: base pay, overtime, merit pay, bonuses, whatever.
And, by the way, we have a California Supreme Court decision to back that up.
In that 2007 case, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 v. Superior Court, Chief Justice Ronald George said that, “we conclude that public employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the amount of their salaries … Local 21 has not introduced any evidence of adverse consequences resulting from the disclosure of this information in the past, although the information regularly was published in a local newspaper.”
Given that Scott’s voice seemed to waver a bit after we pointed this out during a conference call earlier this week, I think she knows it. It may have helped that Karl Olson, the attorney who litigated and won that very case, was on the line. Maybe.
Both sides, it appeared, were ready to do battle. As a court reporter, I have watched opposing attorneys bicker in court on many occasions. With no judge to referee the fight, the call devolved from pleasantries quickly. Clearly, they have their position, and we have ours.
We told Scott that if her refusal constituted the city’s final position, the paper would be forced to file suit to obtain the records. And, if we win, the city will owe us our legal fees.
This, in turn, prompted Scott to reply that she would need to take up the issue with the City Council in closed session, given that we had just threatened legal action. The council, by the way, won’t meet until next year.
All of this is laughable. The city of Burbank is actually going to hold a closed session on whether to release public information?
The call did not improve after that point.
“Are we done?” Scott asked after a particularly heated exchange. “OK. Goodbye.”
On Thursday morning, I dropped by City Hall to give an envelope to Scott. Inside contained a new records request, a copy of a letter written by Olson that explained our position, and a copy of Gretchen’s original request. In my request, I asked for all forms of pay, including the bonuses.
I would have liked to give the letter directly to Scott, but I was told she was not available. Pity. I would have reminded Scott that I live in Burbank, and I am not looking to see my tax money wasted. But the city cannot bully the paper, and the city cannot bully the public.
DAN EVANS is the editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org