A Balcony View: A bonus is still a bonus

In reading about Burbank's refusal to release information regarding bonuses received by city employees for the last 10 years, I was reminded of one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Yes. I do know that when this line was written, the word "protest" did not infer denial. Rather, it was in reference to offering so much information on a subject that one's own explanation becomes suspect.

That is exactly how I interpret the response by Juli C. Scott, chief assistant city attorney, to reporter Gretchen Meier's request seeking the release of information regarding employee bonuses over the last 10 years.

In Scott's letter, she seems all too willing to overstate Burbank's payout guidelines by saying, "The city of Burbank does not provide bonuses. Rather, there is an established merit-pay-for-performance process that was created, approved and funded by the Burbank City Council a number of years ago." She further states that "given that the merit-pay awards are directly related to an employee's performance, we believe that disclosing the actual individual amounts would violate the privacy rights of individuals relating to their performance or lack thereof."

It sure seems like a lot of information regarding Burbank's policy. Especially when no one asked. It likewise shines a light directly on the Burbank City Council. Any reporter would follow that information up with a simple question like, "Why would the Burbank City Council feel the need to identify such a payout process a number of years ago? What loophole did it create?"

To advance Scott's rationale even further, let's take a look at the crux of Burbank's argument against releasing the bonus information: the difference between "bonus" and "pay-for-performance."

About.com defines a bonus as: compensation over and above the amount of pay specified as a base salary or hourly rate of pay.… Bonus pay that is specified by contract is used most frequently to reward executives.… Bonus pay is used by many organizations as a thank-you to employees or a team that achieves significant goals.

Because we are dealing with semantics, I'm inclined to wonder if members of the Burbank City Council considers themselves, along with other city employees, executives that deserve to be rewarded.

Allbusiness.com defines pay-for-performance as a salary scheme that involves accepting a lower base pay in return for bonuses predicated upon meeting production or other organizational goals.

In other words, pay-for-performance could look like a city employee is taking a salary cut, when in reality, that employee is being heavily compensated by a bonus that either measures or arbitrarily determines income. That is a nice scheme, isn't it?

Either way, both definitions of whatever this incremental income is seem to involve payment for meeting or achieving organizational goals. Interesting, to legally challenged folk like myself, that the two definitions sound virtually interchangeable.

What this also sounds like is pre-emptive, defensive, posturing — at least in this columnist's eyes. Frankly, if and when the paper asserts itself and wins the right to obtain the information regarding said bonuses, I'd like to know how else the city of Burbank's response to this paper can be interpreted.

I suppose one way to interpret it would be to see it as ridiculous.

In light of the recent financial scandals involving other small cities like Bell and Vernon, a denial to release city-employee compensation smells of wet rodent.

I, for one, am looking forward to seeing someone from the city of Burbank stand before a court and argue that the term pay-for-performance is something other than a bonus. I've been before judges in Burbank. They don't strike me as the kind of people who are going to rule that bonuses are one thing, and pay-for-performance is another.

You get extra money for doing your job, it's a bonus. You are a city employee and you are supposed to disclose that information. Anything else is semantic drivel — the stuff of blustering, meritless pleadings. If I were a betting man, I'd put all my chips on the press obtaining the rights to see what public officials in Burbank were paid.

That said, there is a bright side to this for all of us living in Glendale. And I don't want it to get lost amid the arguments I pose. Our own city officials have already posted information regarding pay to city employees. It is available on the city website.

So for now, we Glendalians can head into the holidays knowing that, while our holiday season may be filled with lights, we will not be looking in our stockings to see where our city funds went. For now, that lump of coal belongs to the good people of Burbank.

GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is currently working on his second novel and the second half of his life. Gary may be reached at gh@garyhuerta.com.

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