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Burbank officials told to report individual employee bonuses

Ruling in Los Angeles County Superior Court says workplace privacy concerns are secondary to taxpayers' right to know how public funds are used.

May 22, 2011|By Gretchen Meier, Los Angeles Times

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ordered the city of Burbank to release data on bonuses paid to individual employees, saying the taxpayers' right to know exceeded any workplace privacy concerns.

Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones ruled Friday in a lawsuit filed by the Burbank Leader after city officials refused to make individual bonuses public.

Jones cited legal precedent, telling the parties that previous court rulings "basically said, 'Man up, public employees. You don't have any reasonable expectation of privacy in regards to your salary.' "

Emily Gabel-Luddy, a former Los Angeles city planning official who was recently elected to the Burbank City Council, called the 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 Los Angeles Times, whose parent company also owns the Leader, and Karl Olson of the San Francisco-based law firm Ram & Olson, handled the lawsuit, which was filed in January.

The city initially reported only a lump sum for bonuses for fiscal year 2009-10; it paid $1 million that year to workers in five eligible bargaining groups out of an available $1.87 million. By comparison, Glendale paid out roughly $1 million in bonuses to mid-level department managers and executives in the 10 years from 1999 to 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," described clear rules in 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 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 scrutinize bonus payouts for possible cases of nepotism. The chairman of the city's Civil Service Board, which is preparing new limits on hiring family members of City Council members and possibly department chiefs, said there are familial employee relationships within every city department.

Scott argued that releasing the individual amounts would 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 observations of employees in the workplace.

But Jones said those concerns do not 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 for the lawsuit, although the city will have 20 days to file an appeal, if officials decide to do so.

"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, would reflect what was stated in court.

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

gretchen.meier@latimes.com

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