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Newspaper files suit against Burbank for public records

January 30, 2011|By Gretchen Meier, gretchen.meier@latimes.com

The Burbank Leader on Friday filed a lawsuit against the city of Burbank for refusing to disclose detailed information about millions of dollars in merit-based bonuses paid to employees during the past three years.

Burbank officials initially provided 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.

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.

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Glendale City Manager Jim Starbird suspended the bonuses in 2008 when the city started suffering from multi-million dollar budget deficits.

Out of about 1500 Burbank city employees, 874 employees were eligible to receive merit-based bonuses last fiscal year and just over 50%, or 445 workers, received one, according to the overview provided by the city. So far this fiscal year, $228,449 in bonuses have already been paid out, according to the city.

That's more than the $223,393 in bonuses that went to 39 Glendale employees during the highest pay-out year of the program, records show.

Repeated requests for more detailed information on the names, titles and bonus amounts distributed to Burbank employees were denied, prompting the lawsuit.

Burbank officials have argued that releasing the bonus pay information would violate employee privacy provisions.

But 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 argued in Los Angeles County Superior Court filings that legal precedent clearly comes down on the side the newspaper because the bonus pay information

"unquestionably serves the 'strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money' and overwhelms any minimal privacy interest on the part of public employees."

"I think the bonus structure that Burbank has is very unusual in its generosity and very unusual in its secrecy," Olson said.

He pointed to a California Supreme Court decision and a California Attorney General's Office opinion as clearly stating that salaries, as well as the pay for performance bonus programs, must be disclosed to the public.

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