The criteria for bonus payouts also included factors such as exceptional attendance records, leadership skills and "unusual job interest which results in a high quality and/or quantity of work output."
The City Council did not have to sign off on the bonuses approved by City Manager Jim Starbird.
The amounts were capped at 5% of the employee's base pay minus taxes and could not be given out to more than 20% of eligible employees, according to the policy.
City Council members said they were unaware of the payouts listed in the records, which were released Wednesday in response to repeated public records requests from longtime City Hall critic Barry Allen.
"In the totality, it does seem like a large amount of money," said Mayor Ara Najarian. "So my first reaction was, 'Wow that's a lot.' My second reaction was, 'Why didn't I know about any of these?' I think that was probably the thing that concerned me the most is my being unaware."
Starbird on Wednesday defended the bonus program, which he said was used with discretion during stable financial times to reward "extraordinary" performances among a select group of employees — a practice he said is common in many local governments.
"They are a way to recognize exceptional performance, not just doing a good job and doing what you are supposed to do," he said. "And as a percentage and a cost, it's really very small."
The bonus payments represented less than 1% of the payroll for eligible employees during the same period, he said.
The merit-based bonuses haven't been doled out since 2008, when Starbird froze the program after the General Fund budget, which pays for most public services, started suffering from multi-million dollar deficits.
"Just recognizing we were entering difficult times, I froze all merit compensation for the whole organization," Starbird said.