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Judge sides with the Leader

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Friday ordered the city of Burbank to release bonus amounts paid to individual employees, saying legal precedent clearly showed that the taxpaying public's right to know the information exceeded any workplace privacy concerns.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Burbank Leader to obtain the individual bonus amounts after city officials refused to disclose the information.

In siding with the newspaper, Jones said the legal precedent established by previous court rulings "basically said, 'man up, public employees. You don't have any reasonable expectation of privacy in regards to your salary.'"

Recently elected Councilwoman Emily Gabel-Luddy, a former high-ranking Los Angeles city planning official, called the Friday decision predictable.

"I worked in local government for a long time, and my perspective comes from being a former city employee with the expectation that my salary was public because it was paid for by taxpayer dollars," she said. "The decision does not surprise me because taxpayers should be able to see where the dollars are spent."

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, handled the lawsuit, which was filed in January after Burbank officials refused to give the per-employee bonus information.

The city initially provided a lump sum for bonuses for fiscal year 2009-10, broken down by each employee bargaining group that totaled $1 million out of a budgeted $1.87 million. By comparison, 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.

Jones, who called a 2007 California Supreme Court decision a "pretty radical manifesto of access of public information," said there were no exceptions for balancing the public's right to know with expectations of privacy in the public workplace.

"The only reasonable expectations of privacy a public employee might have is for your Social Security number, medical records or the co-pay from your heart surgery," she said. "It sure as heck isn't [your] salary."

Juli Scott, chief assistant city attorney for Burbank, argued that the city has released gross compensation amounts for city employees, which include merit-based bonuses, overtime and other forms of pay.

"What does knowing that Juli Scott, hypothetically, received a $5,000 bonus do?" Scott asked. "What does that tell the public?"

But critics have argued that the lack of specific information makes it impossible to compare bonus payouts with possible cases of nepotism. The chairman of the city's Civil Service Board, which is in the process of crafting new limits on hiring family members of the City Council and possibly department chiefs, said there are familial employee relationships within every city department.

Scott argued that releasing the individual amounts will lead to further questions about why some employees received bonuses and others didn't. Those conclusions, she said, would have to be based on personnel evaluations or observing employees in the workplace.

But Jones said those concerns failed to outweigh the public's right to know.

"The public wants to know [bonus recipients] are the stars and not the pets," she said.

If the ruling stands, Burbank will also have to pay the Leader's legal fees incurred for the lawsuit, although the city will have 20 days to file an appeal — a move city officials said had yet to be decided.

"Obviously the court has made its decision," Mayor Jess Talamantes said. "We have disclosed gross salaries, which include merit payments, and we'll have to see where we go from here."

A decision to appeal the ruling would have to be made by the full City Council, he added.

Olson said he was pleased with the judge's decision and hoped the final order, expected to be available Monday, reflected what was stated in court.

"The judge obviously recognized the Supreme Court case was controlling in this issue," Olson said.

 
 

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