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Outgoing City Council President Ben Hueso requested $11,000 in bonuses for 10 of his employees in writing days after the Nov. 2 election. But when I originally sought the information under California’s public records law, I was told that no documents existed — a claim that quickly proved false.
Last week, I received a tip that Hueso, who is headed to the state Assembly, asked for the bonuses as he finished up his last month on the council. The tip came after I began pursuing a story about Hueso hiring his and his brother’s former campaign staffers for the council president’s final weeks in office.
I put in a Public Records Act request seeking:
Any request from any City Council office for any additional pay for council staff members from 11/2/10 to 11/12/10.
Council Administration Director Lori Witzel, who oversees all the council offices, responded three days later:
Pursuant to your public records request dated November 12, 2010, there is no responsive information pertaining to your request.
But there were documents. The request was made in writing to Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office. Hueso wanted $1,000 each for nine staffers and $2,000 for his chief of staff, Ana Molina-Rodriguez.
Hueso made the request on Nov. 5, which falls precisely within the timeline of my Public Records Act request. The documents went through Witzel, who had told me that no information existed related to my request. She had put a handwritten note on top of Hueso’s bonus paperwork before it went to the Mayor’s Office.
“Please contact me when the checks are ready!” Witzel wrote.
On Monday, after the city denied my records request, I asked Hueso’s spokeswoman, Michelle Ganon, about bonuses.
“I don’t know of any requests for bonuses,” Ganon said.
The next day, I spoke with Hueso. I still hadn’t received any documents. At the end of our conversation, I asked if he was giving his staff bonuses.
“I don’t know about that yet,” he replied.
Later that day, Ganon called me. She admitted that Hueso and Molina-Rodriguez had wanted to give the staff — including her — bonuses. Now, she said, they had reconsidered. The city’s financial situation was too grim for bonuses, she said.
Molina-Rodriguez “looked at the district office’s savings and she thought it would be a nice thing to do to give each person $1,000,” Ganon said, because everyone in the office had exceeded Hueso’s expectations.
My records request, Ganon added, prompted Molina-Rodriguez “to look at it a different way.”
Ganon also acknowledged that Hueso asked for the bonuses in writing, but said the request “had not gone into the system.”
After the interview, I asked Ganon again for the documents. She told me in an email that she couldn’t release them because they included confidential personnel information that needed the approval of the City Attorney’s Office.
I then asked a Sanders’ spokeswoman for the documents. She redacted the personnel information and released them to me.
This morning, I spoke with Witzel. She said she didn’t think Hueso’s documentation was responsive to my request.
“I didn’t think it was final,” Witzel said of the bonus request. “I didn’t think it was a done deal.”
No one in Hueso’s office, Witzel added, had prompted her to respond as she did.
Hueso leaves office next month after being elected to the state Assembly on Nov. 2. His older brother, Felipe, lost his bid for Ben’s seat to Councilman-elect David Alvarez after a hard-fought campaign.