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Burbank seeks to keep employees' bonuses private

The city turns down a public-records request, arguing in a legal filing that releasing individual workers' merit pay would reveal private performance evaluations and erode workplace morale.

May 02, 2011|By Gretchen Meier, Los Angeles Times

Burbank officials are refusing to release the amount of bonuses paid to individual public employees, arguing in a legal filing that the information would reveal private performance evaluations and erode workplace morale.

The argument was filed in response to a lawsuit by the Burbank Leader to obtain the information.

Senior Assistant City Atty. Juli Scott dismissed the arguments and legal precedent cited by Karlene W. Goller — an attorney for the Leader's parent company, the Los Angeles Times — and Karl Olson of the San Francisco-based firm Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski. Scott said the public-records request falls outside established bounds for access to salary and other compensation information for government employees.

The Leader filed a lawsuit in January after the city turned down a request for records on the amount of bonuses handed out to each employee. The city has released only the aggregate amount, which totaled $1 million last fiscal year.

"The argument that the newspaper needs to see these amounts to know if employees are being subjected to favoritism or nepotism is both specious and illogical," Scott argued in documents filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court. "The amount of merit pay received by an individual does not provide the information."

Scott argued that the newspaper would need to see all personnel evaluations to make any comparisons, which would be "speculative at best."

Olson said the city did not advance any reason why the judge shouldn't grant the Leader's request.

"At most, it shows that some city employees would rather not have their bonuses revealed, but city employees can't dictate what the public has a right to know," Olson said in an email.

In the court filing, Burbank Management Services Director Judie Wilke said that releasing the information would "create embarrassment, morale disruptions and personal dissension in the workplace."

Burbank officials initially divulged 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.

The Burbank Management Assn., Burbank Fire Fighters Chief Officers' Unit and Burbank City Employees Assn. all filed declarations in support of the city's arguments.

The debate over disclosing merit pay comes as the city faces an estimated $8.7-million budget gap for next fiscal year. Already, department chiefs have been asked to cut 5% across the board, including $1.27 million from the Fire Department — less than what was budgeted for bonuses last year.

Only general city and public works employees and managers are eligible for merit bonuses.

In March, City Manager Michael Flad told the City Council that merit pay is not included in next year's budget for executives and upper-level managers.

Newly elected City Councilwoman Emily Gabel-Luddy, a former high-ranking Los Angeles planning official, said the bonuses were not appropriate at a time when the budget deficit was in the millions.

"I am not in favor of the bonuses, and although I have not seen the budget yet, I expect them to be suspended or terminated," she said. "If we are looking at cutbacks for other public services that the community relies on during this time and in this economy, the bonuses have no place in our budget."

The city of Glendale responded to a similar records request by releasing the "names, titles, department and amount of award for each employee who had received merit pay for the period between 1999-2010." Glendale suspended its merit program in 2008 due to budgetary issues.

gretchen.meier@latimes.com

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