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Atlanta City bonuses raise transparency questions

ATLANTA -- At a time when many in Atlanta city government have gone the years without a raise, Atlanta City Council members are giving bonuses to their staff. They're doing it with your tax dollars.

While this practice is perfectly legal under city code, is it transparent and does the process have oversight to ensure it's fair? 11Alive took the bonus findings directly to the elected leaders who gave them.

"It's all a matter of public record," said Councilman Howard Shook.

"But do you think the average Atlanta citizen knows that city council is giving multiple bonuses a year to their staff?" responded 11Alive's Catie Beck.

"Again, I think it's a matter of public record," Shook said.

It is public record but is it common knowledge or a transparent practice we continued to ask elected leaders who had given recent bonuses.

"I think we just have seen how difficult it is for our employees and how hard they work," said Councilman Kwanza Hall.

Most council members praise the work of their staff; however, our questions focus on the process by which bonuses, paid with taxpayer money, are decided and awarded.

"There has to be some level of trust in your elected officials," Hall said.

As it currently stands, Atlanta City Council members can directly instruct HR to adjust any salary in their office. There is no oversight or merit review required. In fact, there are no records kept on either.

In order to give a bonus, typically members request that a salary in their office is adjusted, many times doubled, for just one pay period.

Can any member at any time make that decision?" Beck said.

"Yes," said Shook.

After one paycheck, the rate is typically adjusted back down. Generally the pay bumps give between $1,000 and $3,000 in bonus money. They have in some cases been given up to three times within the same year.

For instance, one senior council aide had her salary taken up and down five times in 2012. While her base salary was $68,000, for short term periods her salary was bumped up to a $106,000 and later to $94,000.

"Do you think that's a fair system?" asked Beck.

"Well I think we generally have a pretty good handle on our approach and haven't for the most part given large bonuses," Hall said.

Some would argue that point by referencing two bonuses given by councilman Aaron Watson. Watson lost his re-election bid in November. However, on his way out the door in December he decided to give his exiting staff a bonus. One staff member got close to $13,000 and the other got a bonus of $8,000.

"Wow, wow that's a considerable sum," Councilman Ivory Young said.

Young defends his bonus practices by arguing he only gives them once a year at the holidays. Nonetheless, he does believe our findings warrant a deeper discussion, especially bonuses from outgoing members.

"Certainly it warrants some attention, I'm glad that you did bring this to our attention," said Young.

The amounts also caught the attention of the president of the Atlanta firefighters union, Stephen Borders.

"It is counter-intuitive to everything that is preached from city government and how we are trying to apply oversight and we are trying to be transparent," Borders said.

Borders claims firefighters, like many other city workers, had to lobby hard for their one percent raise this year after four years with no increases. But a bonus? For them, that's out of the question.

"There's no special project, there's no extra credit, there's nothing I can do to increase my salary other than look for a job somewhere else," said Borders.

He says talk is cheap and bonuses aren't.

"We definitely need something different than we have now, both a system for us and a little more oversight for people that have the ability, are they really justified?" said Borders.