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.
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.
If so, it’s a bit of a rock and a hard place. They either risk a lawsuit from this paper, or they risk one from city employees. But that’s why they get paid the big bucks. We just need to know how much.
And about that. The paper is not, as some in the city have complained, doing this for puritanical, shaming or voyeuristic reasons. Instead, it deeply matters that the public be aware of how its local government is spending its money. Burbank’s bonus structure is unusual in the money offered, and in the number of people eligible to receive them.
Officials say the idea is to run Burbank like a private corporation, with more valuable — instead of simply more senior — employees receiving the better pay. On its face, this seems just, right, and logical. But there are a few questions we have about how the program is run, and whether it is truly fair.
First off, the number of people receiving bonuses seems ridiculous. There are 1,500 or so city employees. Of those, 874 were eligible last year to receive the merit payout. Of those eligible, 445, or more than 50%, received a bonus.
I taught a class in journalism ethics at Long Beach State University a few years ago. I had a few exceptional students, and those were the ones who received A’s. The majority could be classified as good students; they received B’s.
There were a few fair students, and two knuckleheads. The last group received the C’s and the two F’s. The point being: Less than 10% of my class was exceptional — a fairly normal distribution.
Also, keep in mind that there are relatives within each of the city’s departments. Though there are rules in place to make sure siblings, uncles and cousins don’t supervise one another, and thus wouldn’t be bestowing the bonuses, it’s hard to know if that’s what’s truly happening without the facts.
It also highlights why we need the names, title, and amount of those who received bonuses — not for gotcha reasons, but to see if those guidelines are being followed.
Now, it could be that Burbank tends to attract some of the best and brightest people around. Maybe all those employees truly are exceptional. After all, a recent survey showed 96% of residents were “generally satisfied” with the city.
But the job of a newspaper is to scrutinize the facts, and to do its best to try and show this community what is truly going on, free of spin or bias.
We cannot do this without the information. According to the city attorney’s office, we’ll have an answer on or before Jan. 7. Stay tuned.
DAN EVANS is the editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.