Just when Multnomah County commissioners were beginning to rebuild their credibility with the public, along comes East County Commissioner Lonnie Roberts with his inexplicable decision to award a $35,000 bonus to his departing chief of staff.

Gary Walker received the check - minus taxes - in late January or early February. Walker, who is getting ready to move to North Carolina, says he and Roberts agreed to the bonus before he was hired in 2001. It was justified, he says, because he had turned down more lucrative employment elsewhere, and because he did full-time work for part-time pay - $34,000 a year.

In evaluating this strange financial arrangement, we want to be crystal clear on two points: First, Walker did a bang-up job as Roberts' chief of staff and deserves gratitude for his efforts on behalf of East County. Secondly, the $35,000 bonus was an utterly inappropriate, non-transparent and slippery way of showing that gratitude.

Multnomah County commissioners have complete discretion over their budgets. But what commissioners must remember is that the county's money doesn't belong to them - it belongs to taxpayers. Commissioners ought not just hand it out to their friends and employees as if Multnomah County were still stuck in the days of cronyism and patronage.

Roberts isn't the only commissioner who has awarded bonuses based on nothing more than perceived loyalty. His actions just happen to be the most egregious. The county should immediately review its policies regarding employee bonuses and adopt new rules that either eliminate bonuses entirely or base them upon criteria that's easily understood by the public.

It's unfortunate that Walker is ending his stint with the county in this manner. It was his work that is helping bring a library to Troutdale and a justice center to Gresham. His legacy will be marred by the memory of this parting gift.

Of course, if he wants to be remembered for the good he did and not his $35,000 jackpot, Walker does have an option.

He could give the money back.

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