With an $8.8-million budget gap looming over City Hall, candidates for City Council took a hard line this week against continuing merit-based bonuses for city employees.
Last fiscal year, city workers got a combined $1 million in bonuses, even as City Hall worked to bridge a multimillion-dollar budget gap.
Police Commissioner Robert Frutos and Landlord-Tenant Commissioner Jacqueline Waltman, both candidates for council, adamantly opposed any sort of bonus pay program at the election forum Wednesday hosted by the League of Women Voters Glendale/Burbank at City Hall.
"I don't support bonuses at all," said Frutos, who was the first to respond to a question about the disclosure of information on Burbank's merit pay program. "This is not a private business; it is a city government."
Waltman, a parole agent in Los Angeles, agreed and called for more information about "who got what and why they got it."
City officials have declined to disclose information on which employee got bonuses and how much.
Longtime Planning Board member Emily Gabel-Luddy also called for greater transparency and suggested alternative uses for the money or even the temporary suspension of the program in light of the poor economic situation.
"Public employees are willing to do their share during a tough time," said Gabel-Luddy, who worked as chief urban planner for Los Angeles before retirement. "But these agreements are from different times."
No City Council member has outright opposed or defended the employee bonuses at City Hall since the news broke in December, and incumbent Councilman Gary Bric was no exception on Wednesday evening.
"It is difficult to ask voters to accept bonus pay when there are drastic cuts made that affect the quality of life," Bric said.
He acknowledged that the merit-based bonuses have been part of employment agreements for up to 20 years, and that it might be difficult to eliminate those provisions.
"I do agree with the transparency part," he added.
The forum, driven primarily by questions submitted from the public, was a celebration of two centennials, according to Chris Carson, co-president of the league.
"Not only is it Burbank's centennial and 100 years of democracy in the city, but it is also the centennial of women's suffrage in this state," Carson said before the meeting. "Imagine that 100 years ago some of these candidates couldn't even run for office."
Candidates were also asked about the NBC Universal Evolution Plan that is likely to affect traffic in Burbank, the decision on whether to install sidewalks on Screenland Drive, reconsideration of utility hikes, ongoing litigation involving the Burbank Police Department and improving historical conservancy.
Gabel-Luddy said the NBC Universal project, as proposed, would bring more bad than good to Burbank.
"We want the jobs and revenue the project will bring," she said. "But there are not any benefits for Burbank as it currently stands."
And Bric — the primary reason sidewalks on Screenland have evolved into a community-wide issue — promised to bring the issue back for further discussion by the City Council, citing public safety as his No. 1 priority.
But Frutos disagreed with any move to install sidewalks on two blocks, saying he favored neighborhood empowerment over the city deciding what is best for residents.
Waltman promoted more residential participation and education of issues within the city. She also called for civilian oversight of the Police Department to avoid another "systematic failure" and education for the public about programs to preserve important historical sites.
Each candidate pointed to the current economic climate as inspiration for running to serve on the City Council.
During closing remarks, each pitched themselves as bringing new and different approaches. Frutos billed himself as "the voice of the people and the voice of the neighborhoods," while Gabel-Luddy touted her job experience in Los Angeles and on the Planning Board.
Waltman cited her civic pride and a desire to step forward for her community, and Bric said he was determined to see things through.
The primary nominating election via mail-in ballot is Feb. 22. Whichever candidate or candidates earn more than 50% of the vote automatically earn a seat on the Burbank City Council. If necessary, an additional runoff election will be held in April.