A Lodi resident who has kept a close watch on how the city spends its money for years chastised the Lodi City Council on Wednesday, asking why the process used to give employees one-time bonuses was not made public.
Ed Miller spoke during the public comment portion of the council’s Wednesday night meeting, saying he was not complaining about the decision itself, which was approved at a January meeting.
Miller said the discussion over the bonuses should have been held in a public forum, not “secretly.”
“The Jan. 15 staff report provided no rationale for the action, no justification and no fit into a macro-level financial plan,” he told the council. “The only statement in the report was that this was a tentative agreement between several unions and the city.”
On Jan. 15, the council voted 4-1 to approve one-time benefit adjustments totaling $647,869 for mid-management, maintenance and operations, general services and confidential employees. According to the approved agreement, the plan is to pay a base $2,300 cash payment on a one-time basis.
The payment was made possible by increased funds in the city’s budget reserves over the last several years, according to former City Manager Rad Bartlam.
Miller argued that because the public is not allowed into what he called “private” meetings with the city’s labor unions, the Jan. 15 agreement seemed to appear out of nowhere.
“The unions, the city management and the council all have an understanding of this item, but nobody else does,” he said. “Frankly, this proposal should have seen the light of day via a public hearing, instead of appearing to be slipped under the radar.”
Miller also spoke at the Jan. 15 meeting, asking the council why these payments were happening.
At the time, Bartlam said it was because the city now had more reserves in its general fund, and the council chose to repay city employees for recent cuts to both pay and benefits.
Bartlam echoed those comments Wednesday night. He added that the city has invested a lot in its infrastructure and buildings, but not as much in its personnel in recent years.
“In order for this organization to exist, we need to have some sort of union/management cohesiveness,” Bartlam said. “In a time when over the last six years — close to seven years — we’ve made cuts to our labor force, the recommendation on Jan. 15 was to make a one-time payment to make up for these takebacks.”
Bartlam said it appeared Miller was trying to rewrite the way cities negotiate with unions, which the council could not change.
Miller, who had returned to his seat, said that was not his intention, and that the council and city management missed his message.
Resident Dave Kroft tried to explain that Miller wanted more transparency from the city.
“When you’re going to spend taxpayers’ money, let us know how you arrived at that decision, unless by law it’s secret and you can’t have open discussions about labor negotiations,” he said.
Kroft said he was an employee of San Joaquin County for about 20 years, and recalled attending Board of Supervisors meetings. He said when it came time for supervisors to have meetings with department heads, employees were not allowed to attend.
The council, city manager and city attorney held closed sessions regarding the payments on Dec. 3, 2013.
California Government Code 54957.6(a) states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a legislative body of a local agency may hold closed sessions with the local agency’s designated representatives regarding the salaries, salary schedules, or compensation paid in the form of fringe benefits of its represented and unrepresented employees, and, for represented employees, any other matter within the statutorily provided scope of representation.”
Vice Mayor Larry Hansen said the city could have chosen to put the money into reserves for future use on things such as infrastructure, parks and streets.
He said the city and the council have not been secretive or evasive.
“We have reduced city staff; our employees have taken a lot less money,” he said. “We had an opportunity this year to recognize their sacrifice. I thought it was warranted to try and do something — this year — for the employees. We know we have challenges in the future, and we won’t be doing this on an ongoing basis.”
Contact reporter Wes Bowers at firstname.lastname@example.org.