Newspaper files suit against Burbank for public records

The Burbank Leader on Friday filed a lawsuit against the city of Burbank for refusing to disclose detailed information about millions of dollars in merit-based bonuses paid to employees during the past three years.

Burbank officials initially provided a lump sum amount for fiscal year 2009-10, broken down by each employee or bargaining group that totaled $1 million in bonuses out of a budgeted $1.87 million.

Glendale paid out roughly $1 million in bonuses to mid-level department managers and their executives between 1999 and 2008 and made the per-employee information available on its website.

Glendale City Manager Jim Starbird suspended the bonuses in 2008 when the city started suffering from multi-million dollar budget deficits.

Out of about 1500 Burbank city employees, 874 employees were eligible to receive merit-based bonuses last fiscal year and just over 50%, or 445 workers, received one, according to the overview provided by the city. So far this fiscal year, $228,449 in bonuses have already been paid out, according to the city.

That's more than the $223,393 in bonuses that went to 39 Glendale employees during the highest pay-out year of the program, records show.

Repeated requests for more detailed information on the names, titles and bonus amounts distributed to Burbank employees were denied, prompting the lawsuit.

Burbank officials have argued that releasing the bonus pay information would violate employee privacy provisions.

But Karlene W. Goller — an attorney for the Leader's parent company, the Los Angeles Times— and Karl Olson of the San Francisco-based law firm Ram & Olson argued in Los Angeles County Superior Court filings that legal precedent clearly comes down on the side the newspaper because the bonus pay information

"unquestionably serves the 'strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money' and overwhelms any minimal privacy interest on the part of public employees."

"I think the bonus structure that Burbank has is very unusual in its generosity and very unusual in its secrecy," Olson said.

He pointed to a California Supreme Court decision and a California Attorney General's Office opinion as clearly stating that salaries, as well as the pay for performance bonus programs, must be disclosed to the public.

"The information must be disclosed, especially in this day and age when city, county, state and federal governments are forced to make difficult and painful cuts," Olson said. "The public has an overwhelming right and need to know who Burbank is favoring with these bonuses."

But in a written response to a public information request from the Leader, Burbank's chief assistant city attorney, Juli Scott, argued there was no way to release the individual bonus pay amounts

"without it directly reflecting on an individual employee's performance, which is private and confidential."

"Certainly no employee, public or private wants or reasonably expects to see their performance evaluation publicly disclosed," she added.

In the days following the Leader's public records request for total compensation information beginning in fiscal year 2007-08, a complete listing of employee salaries was posted on Burbank's website for the past fiscal year.

Lump sums paid to each employee, by name and title, were disclosed, but the city refused to breakdown the total compensation by base, overtime, merit-based bonus pay or other forms of compensation.

The Burbank City Attorney's office declined to comment on the lawsuit, deferring to its response to the Leader's records request.

At public meeting on Tuesday, Burbank Councilman Dave Golonski defended the amount of information released so far.

"We're not trying to hide anything and we're trying to provide as much information [as possible]," he said.

In Burbank, employees must earn an overall rating of "exceptional" to qualify for merit-based bonuses, meaning they must be recognized as outstanding and as having exceeded the expectations and requirements for their position.

However, according to city officials, even if an employee receives an exceptional evaluation, the city is not obligated to provide a bonus.

"Whether or not [an employee is] deserving of merit pay is up to management's discretion," said Management Services Director Judie Wilke.

Burbank City Manager Mike Flad added that any changes to the bonus pay system would require negotiations with the city's employee unions.

"These were negotiated benefits with each of the labor groups and we will have to go back to the table if it is the desire of the majority of the council to go in a different direction with regard to pay for performance," he said.

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