Start the Presses: Transparency is the key

I have a confession: I think bonuses for city employees are a good idea. A properly administered program retains and attracts workers, and perhaps most importantly, frees municipal managers from the hell of having to pay an outstanding employee the same as an average one.

But I despise opacity and bureaucratic doublespeak. When the city of Burbank refused to provide us with data regarding bonus payouts, I felt we had to enforce our, and your, rights. After all, a bonus structure hidden from view is ripe for abuse.

And, well, we did it. The Burbank Leader has finally, completely and decidedly won. City officials have promised us that they will provide us the data shortly, and we'll post it online as soon as we can.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones ruled last month that the city was required to release individual payout amounts. And on Tuesday, the City Council wisely decided not to appeal.

It is a victory for governmental transparency, and a reminder of the importance of an independent press. People have a right to know what their city officials and elected leaders are up to, how they decide to spend their money, who gets it and how much.

But as a resident of Burbank, it pains me that my tax dollars paid for this. The paper is entitled to recoup its legal costs, which currently stand at $39,218 and will likely rise a bit. Simply stated: We should not have had to file this suit in the first place.

The city has consistently argued that workplace privacy laws prohibited them from releasing the information, and that revealing who received what bonus was tantamount to revealing their performance evaluation. But the state Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that public employees have no expectation that their salaries will remain private, and that decision carried the day.

City officials have told us they were concerned employees might sue if such records were released.

I am not unsympathetic to the quandary City Council members found themselves in. Be sued by the paper, or be sued by employee groups? I am very much aware that you cannot please everyone, and that people will question your courage, morals and motives sometimes, it seems, for the sport of it.

But the choice is revealing. When push came to shove, the city leaders of Burbank chose not to look out for the interests of the people of the city, but for city workers.

This paper, I am proud to say, stands for the people, and will continue to do so. In nearly the same breath as its surrender on the public records issue, the City Council chose to implement a complicated leave structure that allows City Manager Mike Flad the ability to bump up paid time off for city executive and mid-level managers by 25 hours. Those hours can be cashed out, resulting in as much as $2,800 in extra pay.

This was done in conjunction with suspending the bonus program for these employees, reducing the bottom level of executive salary ranges and freezing current levels.

Interestingly, the staff report on this issue said this proposal was done in response to the possibility of bonuses or salaries being cut. I do not question Flad's math when he noted that this essentially means executives are giving up 6% in merit pay in return for 1% cash-outs.

But, c'mon here, this is a bonus. Let's just call it that. As I said at the beginning, I believe bonuses can improve a city's workforce. It just has to be fair and transparent. If online polls and letters to the editor are any indication, most residents would not agree with me.

But perhaps that's not because of a philosophical disagreement, but because people just don't trust Burbank officials. My modest proposal is this: Put it all in the open, stop trying to hide things, and make the call.

DAN EVANS is the editor. Reach him at 

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