Multnomah County chairman riled by $35,000 bonus
Ted Wheeler says the bonus Lonnie Roberts gave his chief of staff was inappropriate
New Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler thinks a flimsy policy on awarding bonuses to county employees should be examined under the county's charter review process.
'I think it's something that should be looked at,' said Wheeler, regarding the policy that allowed a county staffer to receive a $35,000 bonus earlier this year. '… I think this clearly will trigger that discussion.'
Gary Walker, Chief of Staff for Commissioner Lonnie Roberts, who represents East Multnomah County on the Board of Commissioners, received the bonus as part of what he called 'a handshake deal.'
To make up for Walker's meager county salary ($34,000) compared to what he could fetch in other positions, Roberts agreed to a hefty bonus upon Walker's departure from the chief of staff job. Now that Walker is preparing to move to North Carolina to be closer to his children and grandchildren, the county awarded the bonus at the beginning of the year, Walker said.
But he didn't try to hide it, as some reports indicate, Walker said. Instead, he considers the bonus part of his salary, which although public record, is traditionally kept confidential, he said.
None of this sits well with Wheeler. The political newcomer was sworn into office in early January and was 'somewhat surprised' to discovere that taxpayer dollars are being used to reward employees with bonuses.
'One could make the strong case that it's not appropriate to pay bonuses in the public sector,' Wheeler said.
'It's not a practice that I'd like to see become widespread. I believe that we should have salaries that compensate people for the work they do. I think it should be open and transparent how much each individual gets paid for the work they do.'
Multnomah County does not have a policy against such bonuses.
According to the county charter, elected commissioners can spend their individual office budgets as they see fit. If they want to use those tax dollars to give staff bonuses, 'that is currently not prohibited by county charter,' Wheeler said.
This makes Wheeler very uncomfortable.
'I feel that an established salary is more transparent than a bonus after the fact,' Wheeler said.
Gresham city officials agree. Terry McCall, Gresham's finance director, said the city doesn't grant bonuses to staff, nor does it enter into 'archaic' handshake deals. Instead, human resource officials want all employment agreements in writing to make sure they are as transparent as possible.
Walker said the bonus was part of the agreement he made with Roberts when he started working for him in 2001. After running Roberts' successful election in 2000, Walker said he fielded numerous job offers - including an undersheriff position with then newly elected Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto - all in the $100,000 pay range.
Roberts wanted him as his chief of staff but knew he couldn't match that kind of pay, Walker said. Instead, Walker agreed to work part-time for Roberts starting at about $25,600 a year with Roberts agreeing to a hefty bonus upon his departure. Walker now makes about $34,000 a year. Roberts could not be reached for comment.
'I have some loyalty to Lonnie,' Walker said. 'A lot of times, you know, people think it's all about the money. It's not always about the money. It's about loyalty and friendship and those kinds of things, and I know that sounds really corny and that doesn't sell papers, but that's what it is.'
The agreement also meets the legal requirement of a deal Walker worked out with his former employer.
After nearly 28 years with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, Walker was pressured to retire in 1999 following an internal affairs investigation into allegations that he gave preferential treatment to his male peers over female coworkers.
Walker was on paid leave with benefits during the yearlong investigation that ended with a termination agreement: The county would pay half his medical insurance through June 2008, as well as his lawyer fees, if he'd promise to not work for the county again unless appointed by an elected official.
As a county commissioner, Roberts is an elected official.
By working part-time (at least on paper as Walker himself admits his work load was really that of a full-time position) Walker doesn't violate an Oregon Public Employees' Retirement System rule that he works no more than 1,039 hours a year.
He also received the other half of his health care coverage as Chief of Staff - coverage that extends through June 2008 as part of his bonus.
Walker scoffs at the notion that his bonus is said to be the largest given to a county employee in recent memory. Multnomah County's former Chief Financial Officer Dave Boyer, who retired a-year-and-a-half early in 2006 after butting heads with then-chairwoman Diane Linn, left with a $140,000 severance package.
'It's just different language,' Walker said. 'It's different in terms of semantics, but it does the same thing.'
Both McCall and Wheeler disagree.
Severance packages are designed for executives or high-ranking public officials who are forced out of their jobs due to performance issues or 'restructuring,' McCall said. 'It helps them weather the storm until they find something else.'
Severance packages also protect employers from lawsuits or disgruntled employees with loose lips.
And as much as Wheeler dislikes taxpayer-funded bonuses for public employees, he hates severance packages even more. So much so that one of the first things he did upon taking office was eliminate them from county employee contracts.
At least a bonus is a reward for a job well done, as opposed to a severance package, which so often is a reward for a botched job, Wheeler said.
As for Walker's request that county human resource officials 'keep this matter confidential,' Walker said he wasn't trying to keep the bonus a secret. He just considers it part of his salary, which traditionally is kept confidential, Walker said.
However, as a public employee, he understands that his salary is a matter of public record.
Walker thinks the whole issue is much-ado-about-nothing.
'It's within the context of our office budget,' Walker said. 'Lonnie could have paid me an hourly rate that would have gotten me here the same way. We chose to do it this way. It's six to one, half dozen of another.'
Then why didn't Roberts just pay him a couple more bucks an hour?
Because Roberts wanted to make sure Walker stayed on the job until 2007, Walker said.
Why not just work that into the contract?
'It was a handshake deal; we didn't have a written contract,' Walker said. '… It was like, 'Stick around, we'll take care of you when you leave.' '