Ron Kaye: The public has a right to know

Burbank city officials are wasting their time and the public’s money pleading the 5th Amendment and remaining silent about which workers split the $1 million in bonuses shelled out last year.

At a time when the scandals in Bell and other cities have shaken the public’s confidence and the cost of government salaries, benefits and pensions are breaking the bank, Burbank is playing a losing hand — unless, of course, it has good reason to hide how much taxpayer money was paid out and to whom in the form of bonuses.

The city cannot win this fight in the court of public opinion, and has next to no chance of winning in the court of law with its feeble argument that bonus babies will be embarrassed by their colleagues and the public knowing they got merit pay for their outstanding public service.

If they are doing such great jobs — and not beneficiaries of a system of favoritism and nepotism, as many have suspected for a long time — they should be wearing badges of honor so citizens could express their heartfelt gratitude and co-workers could be inspired to greater achievement.

The issue is simple: the Burbank Leader, invoking the California Public Records Act and a landmark 2007 California Supreme Court ruling, asked to see per-employee records of the $1 million in bonus payments in the belief they might shed light one way or another on the question of favoritism and nepotism in City Hall.

The city refused, saying they have posted every employee’s total pay, the amount set aside for merit pay, the number of employees getting the bonuses and the ground rules for determining who gets the bonus money.

But who got the bonuses and how much is a matter of secrecy, and disclosure would “create embarrassment, morale disruptions and personal dissention in the workplace,” the city argued in court documents in response to the newspaper filing a lawsuit for the information.

It’s a matter of protecting the privacy rights of the outstanding workers, Assistant City Atty. Juli Scott claims, and revealing who they are “would be tantamount to releasing the employee’s performance evaluation.”

That’s quite a stretch in logic, a subject Scott seems to know a lot about since she asserts it is “specious and illogical” for the Leader to believe knowing who the bonus babies are might help shed light on the favoritism and nepotism question.

“The argument about impairing privacy rights by implying they are doing a good job is preposterous,” says attorney James Chadwick, an expert on public records law who has long represented newspapers and is a board member of the California First Amendment Coalition.

“In what way is it an unwarranted invasion of a public employee’s privacy for the public to know in a general way he is doing a good job in the city’s estimation?” he said. “What is unwarranted is for the public not to know how its money is being spent.”

The law, in fact, is pretty clear since the state Supreme Court ruling four years ago on an appeal filed by the International Federation of Technical and Professional Engineers, and Contra Costa Newspapers Inc. won lower court rulings requiring the city of Oakland to release all salary and payroll records with the names of those earning more than $100,000 a year.

As editor of the Daily News and with Chadwick’s help, I applied that ruling to make public the salaries of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power workers. IBEW union officials howled and sued to no avail.

It’s now standard practice across California for all levels of government to post all salary information, whether requested or not. It’s the public’s money and the public has a right to know where every penny goes and why it goes there. That’s the law.

Burbank will lose this case and be stuck with paying the bill for all the costs associated with it.

The city is wasting time and money and ought to just come clean, unless it has something to hide.

On that score, Scott’s argument that the Leader would have to look at every employee’s personnel records and evaluations to determine if there is favoritism or nepotism is specious and uninformed, if not illogical.

Trust me on this, after four decades as a newspaperman, the telephones will start ringing five minutes after the list of bonus babies is published if their co-workers see them as beneficiaries of favoritism and nepotism, rather than hard work and stellar performance.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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