Storm damage recovery

Case examples by bureau

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Bureau of Development Services 

Problem: A resident said the City unfairly placed a lien on their property many years ago.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reached out to the Bureau of Development Services, which agreed to review the case. The lien was erased, saving the resident $1,280.

Problem: Development Services cited the owner of an auto repair business for two code violations, one of which was based on the City's mistaken determination that he did not have the correct permits for auto repair on his property. The business owner stopped doing auto repair and faced a number of challenges in his efforts to replace the lost income and to correct the other violation. The case dragged on for years, during which the lien, penalties and interest grew to over $40,000.

Resolution: The Ombudsman's Office asked the bureau to remove the lien. The bureau agreed to do so. The Ombudsman's Office also assisted the business owner to access the process to file a liability claim against the City.

Problem: The Bureau of Development Services notified a homeowner that he had to remove personal property from his front yard or the City would hire a contractor to remove it at his expense. The owner was elderly and living on Social Security, and his home lender was threatening to foreclose.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reached out to Development Services, which agreed to give the homeowner more time to clean up the property himself.

Problem: An ailing, elderly woman on a fixed income faced nearly $109,000 in City liens on her property. More than 20 years ago, the property had been cited for overgrown vegetation and a disabled vehicle parked on the lawn. Although the nuisance violations had been resolved years ago, the City charges and interest continued to grow.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that the underlying violations did not justify placing liens on the property and recommended waiving them. Development Services agreed to waive all the fees except $1,400, which represented the bureau’s out-of-pocket expenses.

Problem: A neighbor complained about another neighbor creating a rat harborage by feeding peanuts to squirrels. Development Services inspected the property and found evidence of rats. The neighbor feeding the squirrels was the roommate of the homeowner, an 83-year-old woman on a fixed income. When the neighbor refused to stop feeding the squirrels, Development Services cited the homeowner for $329. She paid the citation. She then received another citation for $608.

Resolution: Ombudsman concluded that the citations issued by the City were unreasonable and recommended that the homeowner be reimbursed. Although the City did not concede the unfairness of its actions, it did close the case and issue the reimbursement.

Problem: Rules protecting children from exposure to lead dust during demolitions went into effect July 1, 2018. Demolitions approved but not completed prior to that date were allowed to occur under the old rules, which did not require suppressing lead dust. Under an informal policy of Development Services, permits issued before July 1, 2018, were automatically extended even if they had been expired more than a decade. As a result, hundreds of demolitions could occur under the old rules.

Resolution: The Ombudsman expressed concerns about the informal policy, given the well-documented health threat that lead dust poses, especially to children. Development Services changed the policy, requiring that any demolition permit applicant seeking re-activation or an extension to comply with the new rules.

Problem: Council began requiring that homes built before 1917 be manually deconstructed. Deconstruction reduces the spread of toxic lead dust to neighboring properties where it can be especially harmful to children. In contrast, homes built after 1917 may be mechanically demolished. Mechanical demolition rules did not require suppressing lead dust. Older homes covered by the deconstruction ordinance are concentrated in affluent and gentrifying neighborhoods. As a result, children in higher income neighborhoods were protected from exposure to lead dust while those in economically vulnerable parts of the city were not. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that Development Services adopt regulations to eliminate the disparity in protections. The Commissioner-in-charge directed the bureau to draft rules designed to contain lead dust during mechanical demolition. City Council adopted the rules.

Problem: A commercial property owner contacted the Ombudsman about the nearly $25,000 liens on his property that the Bureau of Development Services assessed even though he had appealed the underlying code violations. After two years waiting for the bureau to render a decision on his appeal and facing mounting liens, he contacted the Ombudsman.

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that the liens had been erroneously assessed against the property because the owner had challenged the code violations by the required deadline. Development Services removed the liens. Development Services also acknowledged it cited one of the code violations in error and sustained the property owner’s appeal in part.

Problem: A Bureau of Development Services subcommittee met regarding house demolitions in violation of state open meetings law, which requires public notice and the publication of minutes. 

Resolution: Based on the Ombudsman’s recommendation, the bureau re-held the meeting in compliance with open meetings law. 

Problem: A resident reported that the Bureau of Development Services was charging her credit card without authorization. The resident had a lien payment plan arrangement with Development Services whereby she would make individual payments of $35. 0 per month by personal check or one-time credit card payments. When she could afford it, she would sometimes pay double the monthly amount to pay off her lien more quickly. On multiple occasions Development Services charged her credit card more than the amount she owed. This created hardship for the resident, as she recently had surgery and was concerned about having enough money to make her mortgage payment. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and confirmed that Development Services had both charged the resident’s credit card without the required authorization and had not refunded the overcharge.

Development Services accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendation to refund the resident for the unauthorized charges and develop internal controls to prevent recurring credit card charges in the absence of express and written permission from the resident. 

Problem: A homeowner contacted the Ombudsman about mounting liens against her home because of a peeling-paint violation issued by the Bureau of Development Services. The homeowner stated she was experiencing severe economic and personal hardship and was unable to afford or otherwise address the peeling paint in a timely manner, thus incurring revolving liens and increasing penalties. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman directed the homeowner to the BDS lien reduction review process and separately advocated that the lien amount be reduced due to mitigating hardship circumstances. BDS granted a partial reduction, which satisfied the homeowner.

The Ombudsman has and will continue to raise concerns with BDS management and the Commissioner-in-charge about the revolving lien system, including (1) the potentially disparate impact on low-income households and (2) the potentially unfair nature of a revolving lien system that does not distinguish between minor and significant violations. 

Bureau of Environmental Services 

Problem: A City contractor damaged the curb in front of property owned by an elderly woman. She requested the City repair the damage but was told she would have to contact the contractor.

Resolution: The Ombudsman learned that the City was planning maintenance in the area. The City agreed to repair the damage.

Problem: A homeowner received notice that her sewer line was scheduled to be cut off immediately and that she faced penalties for not resolving an illegal "party line" sewer. The homeowner said she did not receive a notice that had been sent out six months earlier. She asked for an extension as well as expedited approval for a financial assistance plan. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that property owner not be cited for non-compliance and be considered for the financing program. Environmental Services agreed. The homeowner eventually completed the work.

Problem: Environmental Services made an offer to purchase a house in the Johnson Creek floodplain. The owner accepted the offer. The City then hired an appraiser, who valued the house significantly lower than the original offer. The appraisal was not completed until several months after the homeowner accepted the original offer, reducing her opportunity to solicit better offers during the prime selling season. The owner, who is low income, said the City was taking advantage of her. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman reviewed the appraisal and questioned the practice of conducting one after making a good faith offer that the homeowner accepts. Environmental Services agreed to review the case and ended up making an offer the owner found acceptable. 

Problem: During a real estate transaction, a Portland resident discovered that his house was hooked up to a septic tank, instead of the public sewer system. The resident had been paying sewer charges to the City for fifteen years. The resident sought a refund, but found out that the Bureau of Environmental Services’ Code limits refunds of sewer charges to three years.

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that the bureau seek City Council’s approval to refund the resident for the full fifteen years’ worth of charges. The bureau agreed, Council approved, and the resident was refunded $5,054.

Problem: After a Portland homeowner accepted an offer to sell her house, the prospective buyer conducted a sewer scope and discovered the home was not legally connected to the public sewer. The prospective buyer conditioned the sale upon it being fixed. The Bureau of Environmental Services told the homeowner that City Code required her establish a legal connection and pay a $6,531 connection fee, in addition to the cost of digging a new sewer line. It turned out that the bureau knew of the illegal sewer connection in 2010 when the house was under prior ownership. For unknown reasons, the bureau did not require the previous owner to establish a legal connection and never otherwise notified the current homeowner.

Resolution: During the Ombudsman’s investigation, the bureau conceded that it made a mistake when it did not require the previous owner to establish a legal connection to the sewer system. The Ombudsman concluded that it was unfair to charge the current property owner a fee that the bureau should have charged the previous property owner. The previous owner may also have been eligible for the bureau’s loan and deferral programs. The current homeowner could not take advantage of the financing programs because the sale of her house was imminent. The Ombudsman recommended that the bureau waive the connection fee. The bureau agreed.

Problem: A property owner complained that the Bureau of Environmental Services was charging him at the higher commercial stormwater rate even though the City had rezoned his property as residential in 1993. 

Resolution: Based on research conducted by the Ombudsman, the bureau agreed to reduce the amount owed and then further lowered the property owner’s bill by recalculating the square footage of impervious surface based on the deterioration of asphalt on the property.

Problem: A commercial property owner learned that the Bureau of Environmental Services was overcharging him for stormwater run-off. Repeated phone calls and nine months later, the bureau provided him with a partial refund, but accused him of disingenuously seeking money owed to others. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman combed through utility billing records and found evidence that the owner was due an additional refund, which the bureau paid. 

Bureau of Human Resources 

Problem: A Bureau of Human Resources committee refused to allow a member of the public to attend a meeting about healthcare plan design in violation of state open meetings law. 

Resolution: Based on the Ombudsman’s involvement, the bureau agreed to conduct future meetings in compliance with open meetings law by posting notice and allowing full public access. 

Bureau of Planning & Sustainability 

Problem: The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability did not ensure compliance with state conflict of interest law when it convened a series of stakeholder advisory committees to make land use and urban planning recommendations. State law required that committee members timely and publicly disclose if they could financially benefit from their recommendations. 

Resolution: At the Ombudsman's suggestion, the bureau took corrective action, asking that committee members disclose potential conflicts of interest prior to City Council’s final vote. Going forward, the City Attorney's Office is offering a standard training for all advisory committees that will apprise members of their obligations as public officials under state ethics laws. 

Problem: The Ombudsman followed up on media-reported concerns about a page on the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s website that purportedly endorsed certain commercial entities. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and determined that the bureau’s website conveyed the appearance of endorsing commercial entities in violation of Human Resources Administrative Rule 4. 8. Exceptions to the Rule may be granted by the elected official in charge if such endorsement is central to the bureau’s mission. The Mayor subsequently granted the bureau an exception. 

Bureau of Transportation 

Problem: A community member's boat was stolen. When it was recovered, the City sent a letter to his business address where he rarely receives mail. By the time he received the letter, he had two days to retrieve his boat or it would be destroyed.

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended the community member appeal the tow to the Hearings Office. The Hearings Office ordered that the storage fees be waived and the complainant retrieved his boat.

Problem: A community member's vehicle was towed because it was partially blocking traffic. Although the tow was legal, the cost of recovering the vehicle was a significant economic hardship for the owner, who was disabled and living on government assistance.

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that the owner be considered for a partial refund under the Transportation Bureau's hardship program. The recommendation was accepted, saving the owner $240. 

Problem: A disabled veteran was cited by the Bureau of Development Services for parking their oversized van in their driveway in violation of City zoning rules. When she moved it to the street, the Development Services inspector reported the vehicle to Parking Enforcement, which issued a tow warning because City Code only allowed that size of vehicle to be parked in a driveway.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reached out to both Parking Enforcement and the Bureau of Development Services. Parking Enforcement agreed to rescind the tow order because the complaint had not come from a member of the public. Although the matter was resolved for the time being, the Ombudsman expressed concerns to both bureaus about the catch-22 situation.

Problem: A houseless community member's vehicle was towed. She went to the tow yard, but was denied access because she did not have the title. She said the title was in the vehicle, but the tow company still refused.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reached out to the Transportation Bureau, which contacted the tow company. The owner, accompanied by the Ombudsman, was allowed to go to her vehicle and get the title. The next day, she was able to remove her vehicle from the lot.

Problem: A doctor for a Multnomah County health clinic parked in an unmarked area because the designated employee parking area was full. A tow truck hooked up the vehicle. The doctor had to pay $270 before the tow truck would release the vehicle.

Resolution: After the tow, "no parking" signs were installed in the area. The Ombudsman recommended that the doctor appeal the tow because of the lack of signage.

Problem: A vehicle was badly damaged in a hit-and-run. The police ordered it towed because it was impeding traffic. When the owner called about retrieving personal property from the vehicle, the tow company said he would have to pay all the towing fees first.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reviewed the City's towing contract, which clearly states that owners are entitled to recover their property without paying the towing fees. Based on the Ombudsman's recommendation, the tow company allowed the owner to recover the property.

Problem: A community member's vehicle was legally towed, but charges of nearly $550 placed severe financial hardship on them. In addition, Parking Enforcement cited the vehicle for parking in front of a temporary no-parking sign.

Resolution: Parking Enforcement agreed to the Ombudsman's request to cancel the $85 citation.

Problem: A disabled veteran mistakenly thought their parking pass would allow them to park indefinitely in a 10-minute zone. Their vehicle was towed. When they called the tow company they were told, incorrectly, that the car was inoperable. They were unable to pay the towing and storage fees and the cost of towing it off the lot.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that the tow company had provided incorrect information about the vehicle's operability and recommended that the fees be reduced to what they were when the owner called the tow company. The Transportation Bureau agreed to cover part of the charges given the owner's precarious financial position.

Problem: A community member contacted the Ombudsman’s Office about overgrown vegetation on a traffic island that was obscuring drivers’ visibility and creating a danger to pedestrians crossing the street

Resolution: The Ombudsman’s Office raised the issue with the Transportation Bureau, which trimmed the vegetation to improve visibility and make the crosswalk safer.

Problem: A victim of car theft asked that his vehicle be left on the street when police recovered it because he couldn't afford to pay the towing fees. Police ordered the vehicle towed anyway.

Resolution: After an intervention by the Ombudsman, the City’s Risk Management Division agreed to reimburse the vehicle owner for the tow.

Problem: A vehicle owner called police to report the vehicle stolen. Five days later, he received a letter saying it had been towed as a hazard. The delay in receiving this information cost the vehicle owner $203 in storage fees.

Resolution: The City’s Risk Management Division agreed to reimburse the community member for the storage fees based on a recommendation by the Ombudsman.

Problem: A vehicle was towed from the parking lot of an apartment building. The owner provided photos that showed that signage to warn drivers of the risk of towing was inadequate.   The City refused to accept the photos as evidence in appeal.

Resolution: At the request of the Ombudsman, the City reversed its position. The vehicle owner was reimbursed $291.

Problem: Two vehicles were towed because the tires were flat. The owner couldn't afford the towing and storage costs. The tow company said they would sell the vehicles and send the owner to collections if the auction price didn't cover towing and storage costs.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that it was unfair to auction vehicles and charge additional fees. Following a recommendation by the Ombudsman, the Transportation Bureau persuaded the tow company not to seek money beyond auction.

Problem: The City towed a vehicle for illegal parking. The owner appealed and won. However, the notice gave him only 24 hours to retrieve his vehicle before storage fees would begin to accrue again. He was suffering from severe Covid symptoms and unable to pick it up for another week. By then, he could not afford the fees.

Resolution: The Ombudsman argued that fairness and mitigating circumstances supported the City covering the storage fees. The City agreed, and the community member recovered his vehicle – the day before it was scheduled to be sold at auction.

Problem: A community member reported his car stolen. He asked that it not be towed when police recovered it, but it was towed anyway. It turned out, the vehicle was left on the street in such disrepair that it was reported as abandoned. The Transportation Bureau ordered it towed, not realizing it had been reported stolen because they don’t have access to criminal records.

Resolution: Although no one at the City did anything wrong, Transportation officials agreed with the Ombudsman that the outcome was unfair and reimbursed the vehicle owner for the tow and a day of storage. Transportation also worked out an arrangement with the Police Bureau to be able to determine when vehicles have been stolen so this wouldn’t happen again.

Problem: A woman’s vehicle was towed for being parked in front of a fire hydrant. She appealed the tow but lost. When she attempted to recover her vehicle, the tow company refused, saying her paperwork was insufficient.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reviewed the woman’s paperwork and an audio recording of the appeal hearing. Although the Hearings Office ruled that the tow was legal, it first determined that the woman’s ownership papers were sufficient to establish ownership. The Transportation Bureau agreed to reimburse all fees that accrued after she first attempted to retrieve her vehicle.

Problem: The owners of a small nursery faced unexpected safety upgrade costs when they moved their business to a new location. Later, Transportation required them to move a power pole and upgrade curb cuts to current standards. The owners said they could not afford all the unexpected costs and would have to close their business.

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that Transportation had a fund for upgrading curb cuts. The Ombudsman recommended that the small business owners apply to have their curb included in the fund. Transportation agreed to include the curb, relieving the business from some of the costs. 

Problem: The owner of two motorcycles was ticketed for parking without a neighborhood permit. The owner has a head injury that impairs her memory and felt it was unfair to ticket her motorcycles when she was trying to comply with the program.

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that Parking Enforcement cancel the tickets and accommodate her disability. Parking Enforcement agreed.

Problem: An Idaho woman temporarily moved to Portland to care for her ailing mother. Her registration tags expired, so she stopped driving her car and left it parked on the street. Over a five-week period, Transportation cited her three times for failure to display current registration.

Transportation left notice on the window of her car warning that her vehicle would be towed as "abandoned." She was then given an abandoned vehicle citation and her vehicle was towed. To retrieve her vehicle, she had to pay towing and storage fees. She complained that she did not know it was illegal to park on the street with expired tags and that she had not abandoned her vehicle.

Resolution: The Ombudsman questioned Transportation’s exercise of its enforcement discretion that resulted in the woman facing $900 in charges because her registration tags expired. Parking Enforcement agreed to cancel the citations for failure to display registration. It also agreed to reconsider the practice of issuing a citation for "abandoned" vehicle before towing. 

Problem: A Portland woman needed a place to store her car until she could save enough money for repairs and updating the tags. A friend let her park it on what he thought was his lawn, but that turned out to be unimproved public right-of-way. Because the car had expired tags, Transportation towed it as “abandoned” after leaving several notices and citations on the car. The owner could not afford to pay the towing, storage and citations, so the car was scheduled for auction.

Resolution: The Ombudsman questioned treating a car as abandoned solely because it has expired tags. The Ombudsman also argued against an outcome where a low-income vehicle owner would lose a valuable asset because she could not afford to buy new tags. A more proportionate penalty would be a single ticket and a notice of proposed tow mailed to the registered owner. 

With guidance from the commissioner-in-charge, Transportation secured release of the vehicle and cancelled her citations.

Problem: Multiple private-for-hire companies challenged Transportation’s assessments of penalties for code violations. One company was fined $5,500 for a single instance of operating without a permit. Another company was given multiple $1,000-plus penalties in rapid succession.

Resolution: The Ombudsman found that Transportation was not adequately documenting the basis for the alleged violations, was not providing companies an opportunity to correct before issuing another penalty and was not exercising enforcement discretion. 

Transportation agreed to reduce the penalties and recognized the need for additional policies and training for enforcement staff.

Problem: A property owner sought to challenge Transportation’s assessment of several thousand dollars for repairing the sidewalk outside his house. The property owner disputed the need for the repairs and the accuracy of the assessment amount. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman’s investigation found that Transportation had both neglected to inform the property owner of the possibility of performing minimal, less costly, repairs and to properly notify him of his right in City Code to appeal the assessment to City Council. 

Transportation agreed to allow the property owner to file an appeal to Council and revised its notice of violation template to apprise property owners of the option of performing minimal repairs.

Problem: Parking Enforcement ordered a car towed from a no-parking zone. The owner complained that the signage was inadequate. He appealed the tow to the Hearings Officer, who upheld the tow.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reviewed the factual circumstances of the tow and the City’s decision to deviate from national signage standards and concluded that the signage did not provide adequate warning of the parking restrictions. Transportation agreed to reimburse the owner for the cost of the tow and evaluate whether additional signage was necessary.

Problem: Several people living in RVs complained to the Ombudsman that Transportation officials had towed, and in one case destroyed, their vehicles as part of the City’s effort to remove abandoned and derelict RVs from public streets.

Resolution: The Ombudsman found that the tows were improper and not in service of any of the goals of the City’s derelict RV program. Transportation agreed to provide one resident additional time to retrieve his RV. The Ombudsman assisted another RV owner to submit a liability claim against the City and connected him with the Oregon Law Center for legal representation. 

Problem: In 2016, the Bureau of Transportation began charging a transportation infrastructure fee to property owners building a home on property where the adjacent road was unimproved. The amount of the fee ranges from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is based on the length of the property’s unimproved street frontage.

The Ombudsman received multiple complaints about the fee from several community members who said they could not afford the fee and would not be able to build a home on their property as a result. 

Resolution: In a series of letters to City Council, written jointly with the Office of Equity and Human Rights, the Ombudsman expressed concerns about the inequitable impacts of the fee. The Ombudsman recommended Council create a low-income exemption from the fee, offer financing and provide for an impartial appeal process.

With Council’s support, Transportation amended the fee program to mitigate its inequitable impacts.

Problem: A Portland resident’s stolen vehicle was recovered by law enforcement and towed to a private lot for safekeeping. As the owner of the vehicle, the resident was charged for the tow and various other fees, including a daily storage fee. After thirty days, the tow company had the authority to take the title of the vehicle and sell it at auction. The resident could not afford to pay the fee or personally retrieve the vehicle before the auction date, as she was unemployed and out-of-state for medical treatment.

Resolution: Despite the City’s actions being consistent with policy, the Ombudsman asked the Bureau of Transportation to consider the matter further, given the unfairness and hardship the situation presented. The bureau persuaded the tow company to cap the fees and delay the auction. The Ombudsman also asked the law enforcement agency that ordered the tow to absorb the resident’s fees. The agency agreed. The owner arranged for a mechanic to tow and store her vehicle until her return.

Problem: The Bureau of Transportation moved a disabled on-on-street parking spot from in front of a library branch to a street behind it. A disabled library user with limited mobility complained that the new spot forced her to painfully walk through the library parking lot to enter the branch. Although there was an additional disabled space in the library’s parking lot, it was often in use.

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that the bureau had moved the accessible parking space to accommodate a corral for the City’s bikeshare program. The corral previously was located across the street, but people living in adjacent homes complained that the corral took parking spaces from in front of their homes. The bureau moved the disabled parking spot without consulting its own Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator.

The Ombudsman raised concerns about the process and decision and recommended that the bureau reconsider its decision and speak directly with the affected community member. After doing so, the bureau agreed to restore the disabled parking space to its former, accessible spot.

Problem: A community member regularly attends public meetings of the Bureau of Transportation’s traffic safety committee. The Bureau provides materials to committee members prior to each meeting concerning issues on the agenda. The community member asked that he receive the same materials ahead of meetings, but the Bureau declined.

He also questioned the practice of allowing public testimony in the middle of meetings, rather than at the end, reasoning that if a member of the public wanted to raise a question about an issue that arose during the second half of the meeting, they would have to wait until the middle of the next meeting to do so.

Resolution: The Ombudsman questioned why the Bureau was withholding documents that could be obtained via public records request. The Ombudsman also asked why public testimony was taken in the middle of a meeting, an unconventional practice. The Bureau agreed to provide the community member with the materials prior to the meetings. The Bureau also agreed to hear public testimony at the end of each meeting.

Problem: A vehicle owner challenged the Bureau of Transportation’s tow of her motorcycle. Her motorcycle had been parked across the street from her apartment. Unbeknownst to her, the area parking permit affixed to the license plate had been stolen. City parking enforcement subsequently issued several citations. The citations were inserted behind the license plate, underneath the motorcycle’s cover. The vehicle owner did not see the citations, and eventually the Bureau towed the motorcycle. The City’s Hearings Office upheld the tow, citing a Code provision that says a vehicle cannot be parked in the public right-of-way for more than 24 hours.

The vehicle owner sought the Ombudsman’s assistance, arguing that the citations and tow were unfair and indicating she was unable to afford to pay for the release of her motorcycle. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that the multiple citations and tow were an excessive and overly punitive response where a vehicle owner has paid for a parking permit. At most, the Bureau would have been justified in issuing a single citation for failure to display the parking permit. The Ombudsman noted various equitable reasons for providing the vehicle owner some relief.

The Ombudsman recommended that the Bureau of Transportation void the tow, pay for its release and waive all but one of the parking enforcement citations. The Bureau agreed to the recommendations and went even further, ultimately waiving all citations and paying for additional costs the vehicle owner incurred as a result of the tow.

Problem: A property owner was nearing the end of the process to obtain approval from the City to build a new, single-family home in Southwest Portland. Shortly before the City was slated to approve his building permit, City Council adopted a new Local Transportation Infrastructure Charge. 

The Portland Bureau of Transportation determined that the property owner was subject to the new charge, which totaled $75,000. The owner stated that the new charge was cost-prohibitive and would prevent him from building his home.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that the new charge should not apply to projects well underway at the time City Council adopted the new infrastructure charge. The bureau subsequently agreed to grandfather in the property owner under the rules in effect at the time he applied for a building application.

Problem: A Portland taxi driver, whose livelihood had been driving a cab for 28 years, was denied a license re-certification after a criminal background check showed a 20-year-old conviction record. The taxi driver had been re-certified to drive a cab despite his conviction, but new City Code amendments that took effect in 2016 eliminated the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s discretion to re-certify based on mitigating circumstances. The unexpected denial of license re-certification created a significant financial hardship for the taxi driver and his family. 

Resolution: The bureau agreed to issue a temporary license after the Ombudsman confirmed that the taxi driver had applied to have his record expunged and that the District Attorney’s office would not contest it. When the Circuit Court granted his expungement, the bureau re-certified the taxi driver.

Problem: In 2008, a homeowner was required to connect to the City’s sewer system. To comply, the homeowner obtained a permit to work in the public right-of-way. The Bureau of Transportation required a cash bond in the amount of $100, which would be refunded upon completion of the work and passage of inspection two years later. The homeowner completed the work in 2009, which meant the refund should have automatically been issued in 2011. The homeowner was still waiting for a refund in 2015. After trying over the course of several years to obtain a refund from Transportation, the homeowner contacted the Ombudsman.

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that when the City moved to a new technology system, cash bond refunds stopped going out. Transportation did not remedy the problem and the homeowner’s case and others like it went unaddressed. At the Ombudsman’s prompting, Transportation finally issued the homeowner her refund.

Problem: A complainant who is homeless contacted the Ombudsman contending that a Portland Bureau of Transportation’s no camping notice addressing the removal of personal property was inadequate and contained conflicting information. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman agreed with the complainant’s contentions and raised concerns with Transportation and the City Attorney’s Office. Transportation explained that this particular notice was posted by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office without its authorization and was actually an outdated draft version of the notice. Transportation followed up with the Sheriff’s Office and clarified that it is not to post any campsites on its behalf.

Transportation’s final version of the notice had corrected most of the deficiencies; however, the Ombudsman remained concerned that the notice’s 1,500 feet clean-up radius was too large and ran afoul of applicable laws. On the Ombudsman’s recommendation, the bureau reduced the clean-up radius to 200 feet. 

Emergency Communications

Problem: A resident contacted the Ombudsman alleging that a Bureau of Emergency Communication’s 9-1-1 call-taker refused to send police to her aid and gave advice that, if followed, may have further endangered her welfare. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and determined that the call taker misapplied the bureau’s Standard Operating Procedures and otherwise exhibited questionable judgment in handling the call. In response to the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the bureau provided supervisory training to the employee and incorporated new protocol language for handling vehicular menacing calls.

Office of the City Attorney 

Problem: An American Sign Language-speaking member of the public sought to file a complaint with the City Attorney’s Office regarding a sports bar’s failure to display closed captions on the bar’s televisions as required by the law. The City Attorney’s Office is responsible for enforcing the closed captioning requirements. Staff at the City Attorney’s Office did not accept the complaint and mistakenly referred the complainant to another office.

Resolution: The Ombudsman facilitated communication between the complainant and the bureau. The City Attorney’s Office notified the sports bar of a potential code violation. The bar activated closed captioning on all of its screens and educated its staff about the law’s requirements. 

Problem: A resident contacted the Ombudsman alleging that an expert consultant hired by the City Attorney’s Office was significantly overbilling the City. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and was able to partially substantiate the allegations, finding clear instances of overbilling. In response to the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the City Attorney’s Office challenged certain billing items and recovered thousands of dollars that the City had overpaid to the consultant. The City Attorney’s Office also accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendation to add standard provisions to its expert consultant contracts that required itemized billing and created a mechanism for addressing disputed billed amounts.

Office of Management & Finance

Problem: A Portlander experiencing homelessness complained about the City’s 24-hour notice for sweeping campsite. He reported that it was difficult to know when his belongings would be removed because the notice did not provide the time.

Resolution: The Ombudsman argued that including the time on the notice would not only benefit campers by letting them know the earliest time at which their personal belongings could be removed. But it would also demonstrate the City’s compliance with the legal settlement governing campsite clean-up. The City agreed to include a time of posting on the notices.

Problem: A community member complained that a contracted security official assigned to a City building was wearing a “Blue Lives Matter” patch on his cap during a protest of a Portland Police shooting.

Resolution: The Ombudsman brought the allegation to the attention of a Facilities Services manager, who oversees the security contract. The manager investigated and confirmed the allegation. The manager and the security official agreed that wearing the patch at work was not appropriate.

Problem: A City employee anonymously reported concerns that a no-bid contract with a former City employee was the result of a quid pro quo arrangement with a current Office of Management and Finance administrator. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman conducted an investigation. Although the Ombudsman did not find evidence of a quid pro quo arrangement, the investigation raised several general concerns, including the prudence of sole-sourcing to former City employees, the adequacy of the dollar threshold for public notice and opportunity for protest, and the sufficiency of the public contracting oversight structure. The Ombudsman brought the concerns to the Mayor’s attention. 

Procurement Services

Problem: After Procurement Services denied his bid protest, a small business owner filed a complaint. The business owner’s protest had raised concerns about the City’s evaluation of vendors’ proposals and specifically questioned a Portland Bureau of Transportation employee’s scoring of the proposals. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman conducted an investigation and found the Transportation employee’s scoring of the proposals to be unsupportable. After several communications, Procurement opted to re-do the evaluation of the proposals with a different evaluation committee.

Problem: A resident made an anonymous report alleging that the Procurement Services’ Sheltered Market Program paid a former City contractor thousands of dollars for consulting services it never rendered. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated. Finding support for the allegations, the Ombudsman referred the matter to law enforcement for possible prosecution. The former City contractor later settled with the City, agreeing to return approximately $17,000 and to never again seek to contract with or work for the City. Based on the Ombudsman’s recommendations, Procurement Services instituted a two-step invoice approval process requiring the actual receipt of goods prior to payment and requiring a supervisor to sign off on an invoice before payment to vendor can occur. 

Revenue Bureau

Problem: A community member parked in a private parking lot that is regulated by the City. The machine for accepting payment was out of order, so she left a note with her phone number asking that they call her, and she would pay by credit card. When she returned to pick up her vehicle, there was a citation. She exercised her right to appeal to the City, but she received no response. She then received a notice from the parking lot owner that she owed a penalty because the payment deadline had passed.

Resolution: An investigation by the Ombudsman determined that the City had misplaced her appeal. The City waived the late fee, but declined to waive the original citation because the lot’s rules prohibited parking if the payment machine wasn't working. However, the Ombudsman found that the signs explaining this rule did not meet City Code requirements for visibility. As such, the City agreed to cancel the citation.

Problem: The Ombudsman received a complaint that approximately 2,150 residents who lived outside the City of Portland limits paid about $200,000 in Arts Taxes. Most of the residents lived in zip codes on the edge of Portland, but outside the city limits. It was unclear why they paid a tax they did not owe. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that the Revenue Division send letters to the residents saying they may be entitled to a refund. Revenue agreed and sent the letters in February 2019. 

Problem: A resident received notice that he owed the Arts Tax for 2012. Revenue’s records showed a partial payment -- $17.50. He said he had paid the full $35 every year.

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and determined that Revenue applied half his 2012 payment to his wife's account -- even though she had died several years earlier. Revenue acknowledged the error and cancelled the past due notice. 

Problem: A resident contacted the Ombudsman after not being permitted to file a complaint with the Revenue Bureau’s Towing and Private Property Impound Program. The bureau said the resident lacked the requisite legal standing to file a complaint. The resident had wanted to raise concerns about the conduct of a private towing company and the City’s policy on towing a vehicle with an animal inside. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that City Code did not require legal standing in order for a person to file a towing complaint. After extended discussion, the Revenue Bureau agreed with the Ombudsman’s assessment and the bureau subsequently conducted an investigation into the resident’s complaint. The bureau also proposed changes to the Towing Code clarifying the rights of vehicle owners with respect to animals in towed vehicles. 

Risk Management

Problem: A motorist was involved in a collision with an unmarked Portland Police vehicle. She sued the City in small claims court and Risk Management filed a counter-claim. The court found in favor of the City and entered a judgment against the woman for over $5,000. 

The motorist was a single mother who had recently experienced homelessness, unemployment and domestic violence. She was working part-time and receiving food stamps and a housing subsidy. When she was unable to make sufficient payments to the City, the City assigned her account to a private collection agency.

Resolution: The Ombudsman found that Risk Management lacked legal authority to appear on behalf of the City in small claims court. While disagreeing with parts of the Ombudsman’s assessment, Risk agreed to forfeit its claim and amend Code to secure clear authority to represent the City in small claims court moving forward.

The Ombudsman also found that Risk, like many other City agencies, lacked policies to guide its collection activities to ensure they are equitable and cost-effective. An equitable policy would consider a debtor’s income and assets in determining whether the debt is collectible. Risk agreed to establish clear and fair collections criteria.

Problem: In the course of apprehending a violent suspect who had broken in and barricaded himself inside rental property, Portland police caused thousands of dollars of damage to the property. The property owner filed a claim with Risk Management, seeking reimbursement for the damage. Risk Management denied the claim, explaining the City was not liable for the damage.

Resolution: The Ombudsman argued that the property owner was entitled to have her claim processed as a “fair and moral claim.” The fair and moral claims process is provided in Charter and allows the City to compensate members of the public for City-caused damage or injury in cases where it is not legally liable.

The City convened the fair and moral claims committee, which recommended compensating the property owner for the damage. Council approved the recommendation and awarded the property owner $25,514. 

Problem: A Portland resident filed a claim for compensation with the City's Risk Management division. She lived next door to a house that was the subject of a violent police raid that used explosives to gain access. Not only did the blasts blow out her windows, but later she discovered structural damage to her home that she believed the police raid caused. Risk Management paid for the windows right away, but refused to compensate her for the structural damage claim she filed several months later. Risk argued that by cashing the check for the windows, she had signed away her right to any additional compensation.

Resolution: The Ombudsman urged Risk Management to reconsider based on a Charter provision designed to promote fairness when strict adherence to City rules would lead to an unjust result. More than a year after the police raid, the Risk agreed to pay the costs of the structural damage not covered by the resident’s insurance.

Office of Community and Civic Life

Problem: Two neighborhood association members submitted separate complaints about the Office of Neighborhood Involvement’s handling of grievance appeals. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated both complaints and identified several concerns with the grievance and appeal process as written and implemented. Some recommendations have already been implemented, while others will be taken up by a committee charged with reviewing the Office of Neighborhood Involvement’s grievance process. 

Portland Fire & Rescue 

Problem: Fire conducted a drill on a resident’s private property. The drill alarmed the resident, who had not given permission or received advance notice. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman communicated to Fire that it needed to ask permission before conducting drills on private property. Fire agreed. 

Problem: A Fire arson investigator was reported to have pulled over drivers on multiple occasions, both for arson-related investigations and also for traffic stops unrelated to any investigation. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman raised safety concerns and questioned the legality of armed members of Fire acting like police officers, particularly outside the context of arson investigations. Fire established and later refined a policy prohibiting fire investigators from initiating a traffic stop except under extraordinary circumstances.

Problem: A City employee requested records of an investigation into the conduct of a high level Portland Fire & Rescue manager accused of misconduct. Although the Fire Bureau had already provided the same records to the media, it refused to turn them over to the employee.

Resolution: The Ombudsman suggested the employee petition the District Attorney’s Office to overturn the bureau's decision because it was contrary to law. On appeal, the District Attorney rejected the bureau's arguments for keeping the documents secret and ordered it to turn them over. 

Problem: In response to a campaign advertisement during the 2012 primary season, the Ombudsman initiated an investigation into whether certain Portland Fire & Rescue employees violated any restrictions pertaining to public employee political activity. Two residents reported similar concerns to the Auditor’s Office during the general election season. 

Resolution: In the course of conducting the investigation, the Ombudsman observed a lack of clarity and consistency among the various political activity restrictions that may apply to City employees. Based on the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the Bureau of Human Resources amended Administrative Rule 4. 6 to track the more stringent Federal Hatch Act political activity restrictions and to prohibit non-elected City employees from using their official authority or influence while engaged in political activity.

The Ombudsman also works with the Auditor’s Elections Officer and the City Attorney’s Office to distribute a City-wide memorandum in advance each general election, which reminds employees of political activity restrictions and reporting obligations for suspected violations. 

Portland Housing Bureau 

Problem: A homeowner involved in a Portland Housing Bureau home rehabilitation program contacted the Ombudsman to complain about an interaction she had with a Bureau manager. The homeowner alleged that the manager insisted on meeting at her home against her will. The homeowner recorded the meeting.

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that the Bureau manager’s actions and treatment of the homeowner were inappropriate. The Ombudsman found that a City staff person forcing someone to meet at the community member’s private home to be inherently intimidating. The Ombudsman also found the manager’s approach and decisions pertaining to the homeowner to be heavy-handed and arbitrary. Among other things, the Ombudsman recommended the Bureau manager provide a written apology to the homeowner.

The Bureau manager initially agreed with the recommendation, and the Ombudsman worked with the Bureau manager to craft a meaningful apology. The Bureau manager then decided against apologizing based on advice from the City Attorney’s Office. Eventually the Bureau manager issued a minimal apology, which satisfied the homeowner.

Problem: A business was accused of fraudulently obtaining thousands of dollars’ worth of Housing Bureau funded subcontracts under a City program designed to help businesses owned by women and minorities. Despite strong evidence that the business acted as a pass-through for a non-minority, male-owned business, state regulators declined to take action. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman spoke with local, state and federal law enforcement officials. The Oregon Department Justice stepped up and agreed to pursue the case. The result was a settlement of the state’s allegations under the Oregon False Claims Act, requiring the business to pay $15,000 and relinquish its state certification as a minority- and woman-owned business. 

Portland Parks & Recreation 

Problem: A community member was unable to receive a refund from a Parks community center after several of her toddler's dance classes were cancelled at short notice. She reported having several other negative customer service experiences at the center. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman brought the issues to the attention of the community center supervisor, who apologized to the community member and promised to provide additional coaching for staff. The community member received a full refund for the class. 

Problem: A community member was unable to register for certain classes at the Portland Tennis Center (PTC) because of a discrepancy between their US Tennis Association rating and their rating from PTC instructors.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that the PTC ratings policies were unclear, which could lead to arbitrary or discriminatory decision-making. The Ombudsman recommended that the community member be allowed to register in the desired classes. PTC accepted the recommendation.

Problem: Casual and seasonal Parks and Recreation employees were facing several issues related to hiring and recruitment, including difficulty accessing and completing applications, a problematic process for completing new-hire paperwork, and delayed paychecks.

Resolution: Based on recommendations by the Ombudsman, Parks and Human Resources agreed to several process improvements, including allowing exceptions to be made for paper applications and a more clear and transparent process for onboarding new employees.

Problem: A community member's boat was illegally towed and destroyed by Parks and Recreation. The community member was rendered houseless, as he had been living on the boat, and lost numerous personal belongings.

Resolution: The Ombudsman helped the community member file an appeal with the Hearings Office and submitted a brief to the Hearings Office to advocate that Parks be sanctioned for the egregious behavior and withholding relevant facts during the appeal hearing. The Hearings Office issued a sanction to Parks for the maximum amount.

Problem: Families with children with disabilities were not able access nature day camps due to lack of City planning and organization, including delays in hiring inclusion assistants and unclear and inconsistent communication between the City and community members seeking to request inclusion services for their children.

Resolution: The Ombudsman helped ensure that process improvements were implemented so Parks programs would be accessible to all. This included ensuring City hiring for inclusion assistants took place on time and that the Adaptive and Inclusive Recreation program had clear guidelines for when and how to respond to requests for inclusion services.

Problem: A community member with sight-impairments lost her key to a City-run community garden. Also, she also was unable to access free compost and burlap bags because she could not see when they were delivered. She asked Portland Parks & Recreation for several accommodations, including a lock with a keypad (which she purchased) and email notification of compost and burlap bag deliveries. She said Parks would not provide her with the help she requested.

Resolution: After the Ombudsman reached out to Parks management, all of the woman’s concerns were addressed, enabling her to meaningfully access and use her community garden plot.

Problem: A Parks Board’s subcommittee on off-road cycling met in violation of Oregon’s public meetings law, which requires notice, the taking of minutes, and public access. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended Parks immediately bring the subcommittee meetings into compliance. Parks changed the reporting structure to exempt the subcommittee from the public meetings law requirements.

Problem: Urban Forestry ordered a property owner to remove a dead tree in the public right-of-way on a slope behind their house. Urban Forestry determined that the tree met the legal definition of a "street tree" and therefore removing it was the responsibility of the adjacent property owner. The property owner objected, saying it was not a street tree because it wasn't in front or on the side of their house. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman questioned Urban Forestry’s interpretation of Code requirements and brought the matter to the attention of the Commissioner-in-charge. The Commissioner directed Urban Forestry to rescind the citation. 

Problem: A community member complained about a Portland Parks & Recreation community center allowing a church group to rent space. The community member believed that allowing the church to use the community center as its place of worship instead of the church buying or renting space on the private market amounted to an improper public subsidy of religion. The community member noted that the church used the community center’s address as its permanent physical location and used pictures of the community center on its website.

Resolution: The Ombudsman’s investigation included a broader survey of Portland Parks & Recreation’s rental policies, rate schedules and advertising. The Ombudsman found that Portland Parks & Recreation’s practices differed by community center. Some practices raised potential Constitutional problems by subsidizing religious organizations and suggesting a preference for the activities of certain religions.

Portland Parks & Recreation accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendation to develop a standard rental policy that encourages equal inclusive access to community centers, that is applied consistently to all users and is adhered to by every community center.

Problem: Portland Parks and Recreation ordered three Southwest Portland homeowners to remove nine trees located on a steep slope of publicly owned property behind their homes. The estimated cost of the removal was $3,500. The owners objected to the City’s determination that they were responsible for removing trees in a public right-of-way far beyond their property lines. The homeowners wanted to appeal their cases to the City’s impartial Hearings Officer, but the Tree Code required them first to each pay $110 to file an administrative appeal to the City Forester.

Resolution: Because the bureau had predetermined that it would reject the appeal, the Ombudsman recommended that the fees be waived so the property owners could present their cases to the Hearings Officer. The Ombudsman also raised questions about the bureau’s expansive interpretation of property owner responsibilities under the Tree Code. The bureau eventually agreed to waive the appeal fees and later rescinded the citations and removed the trees at no cost to the property owners. 

Portland Police Bureau 

Problem: A vehicle was stolen. When Portland Police recovered it, they ordered it towed. The vehicle owner could not afford the tow fees.

Resolution: The Ombudsman worked with the City and tow company to get a substantial reduction in towing fees so the owner could recover the vehicle.

Problem: A stolen car victim asked that their vehicle be left on the street when police recovered it because they couldn't afford to pay the towing fees. Police ordered the vehicle towed anyway.

Resolution: Risk Management agreed to reimburse the owner for the tow.

Problem: A man was attacked by an assailant who yelled anti-gay slurs. The responding officer noted the language used by the attacker in the police report but did not list the assault as a bias crime.

Resolution: The Ombudsman interviewed the victim, who said he believed the attack was motivated by anti-gay bias. The Ombudsman reached out to the Portland Police and recommended that the case be reviewed. Following further review, the Police re-classified the attack as a bias crime, which elevated it from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Problem: An elderly woman's vehicle was stolen. Before she could retrieve it, the thieves forged registration papers and claimed legal ownership.

Resolution: The Ombudsman contacted DMV, which tracked down the forged papers and suspended the registration. The Ombudsman then contacted Portland Police, which listed the vehicle as stolen.

Problem: Portland Police ordered a van towed for lack of insurance even though the owner was living in it. The van contained the owner's tools, which he needed to make a living.

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that the owner appeal the tow and wrote a memo to the Hearings Office pointing out the hardship the tow caused. City Code allows a valid tow to be overturned if it was otherwise unjustified. The Hearings Officer ruled the tow valid but unjustified and ordered the vehicle released to its owner at no cost.

Problem: A community member was driving down the street when their tires were destroyed by the accidental deployment of a police spike strip.

Resolution: The Ombudsman helped the community member get reimbursed through the City’s Risk Management Division.

Problem: An elderly man was at a gas station when he saw someone getting beaten up. He tried to intervene but ended up getting assaulted himself. He tried to drive away to escape, but lost control of his vehicle and drove onto the sidewalk and hit a building. He was taken to the hospital and police ordered his vehicle towed. The elderly man was also formerly homeless and permanently disabled, living in an adult foster care home on federal assistance. He needed his vehicle to get to medical appointments but could not afford to pay the towing and storage fees.

Resolution: An investigation by the Ombudsman determined that the police had followed protocol, but the result was nonetheless unfair. The Ombudsman reached out to the Transportation Bureau, which manages the City’s contract with tow companies. They reached out to the tow company, which agreed to waive the fees and return the vehicle to the owner.

Problem: A woman from Vancouver had her car stolen. It was recovered in Portland and ordered towed. By the time she received notice, the fees had reached $463. In addition to towing and other one-time fees, tow companies charge a daily storage fee. The woman could not afford to pay the fees.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that the police had followed protocol. The Ombudsman reached out to the Transportation, which manages the City’s towing contract. They reached out to the tow company, which agreed to reduce the fees to $150. The woman was able to recover her vehicle.

Problem: When a stolen vehicle is recovered, in most cases it is towed to a private lot in accordance with Police policy. To retrieve the vehicle, the owner must pay towing plus daily storage fees. The Ombudsman received complaints about this policy, saying that it was unfair to charge crime victims to recover their property. Police statistics also indicated that thieves target vehicles in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Thus, the policy disproportionately affected people who could least afford it.

Resolution: After a media story, the Mayor's Office directed the Police Bureau to re-evaluate its policy. The Ombudsman submitted a formal comment letter in favor of revising the policy, describing the disproportionate impact of the City's policy on low income residents and offering alternative approaches that three cities used to reduce the financial impact on crime victims. The bureau subsequently drafted a policy to allow stolen car victims to have their vehicles left where they were found rather than having them towed. 

Problem: A Portlander was one of a dozen men arrested during an undercover sting operation in which a police officer posed as a prostitute. Police listed the names of the men in a press release that described the sting as an "Undercover Sex Trafficking Mission." The man successfully completed diversion and avoided conviction. However, his name remained on the online press release. He complained that his small business was losing customers because the press release was the first item that appeared when people searched his name on the Internet.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reviewed the matter and found that Police had recently adopted a policy that allowed people to get their names removed from press releases if they successfully expunged their arrests through the court system. The business owner successfully expunged his arrest and was able to request removal of his name from the press release.

Problem: Police issued a press release about a gang arrest that included the block where arrest occurred. There was concern that the home was easy to identify because the door had been kicked in. The girlfriend of the gang member arrested still lived there with a minor child and might be the subject of gang retaliation.

Resolution: Police agreed with the Ombudsman that retaliation was possible and changed the press release to obscure the location of the house where the arrest occurred.

Problem: The Ombudsman’s Office received a number of complaints about the Portland Police Bureau’s response to public records requests. Some cases involved the Police Bureau taking as long as four months to respond to routine records requests. The delayed response resulted in a hardship for crime victims who urgently needed their reports to resolve medical bills and outstanding identity theft charges.

Several requesters said it was unfair to charge crime victims for their police reports. One elderly woman on a fixed income could not afford the Police Bureau’s fee. In one case, the Police Bureau improperly withheld records from a victim of an alleged sexual assault. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman worked with the Police Bureau to quickly provide records for urgent matters, establish a financial hardship fee waiver policy, and reverse course and disclose records improperly withheld. 

Portland Water Bureau 

Problem: A disabled community member received a letter saying that a six-year-old water bill was being referred to collections. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman contacted the Water Bureau, which determined that a pre-collections letter had not been sent to the community member, as required. The bureau withdrew the case  from collections and the customer was only responsible for the final bill, saving them almost $500.

Problem: A restaurant received a water bill showing significantly higher than normal use and called the Water Bureau. An inspection determined the likely culprit was theft from a vault in the nearby sidewalk. Restaurant management was unaware that the vault was their responsibility and asked the bureau to adjust the bill. The bureau said that City policy allows adjustments only in case of leaks, not theft.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that it was unreasonable to expect the restaurant to have prevented water theft from the underground vault and recommended that the Water Bureau refund all charges that could likely be attributed to theft. The Water Bureau accepted the recommendation and credited the customer's account for over $5,000.

Problem: A Bureau of Environmental Services project required a homeowner to redo the sewer from his house to the street. The City contractor did not do the job properly and sewage backed up, damaging the homeowner's basement and leaving him without service for a month. The contactor later repaired the sewer line and assured the owner that the City had flexibility in charging and he would likely not have to pay. Nearly four years later, he received a bill for $7,200.

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that the totality of the circumstances warranted making an exception and recommended waiving the charges. Environmental Services agreed.

Problem: Two elderly military veterans had a longstanding water leak that cost them thousands of dollars. By the time they finally were able to locate the leak and get it fixed, the Water Bureau said they had waited too long to be eligible for a refund under the leak policy.

Resolution: The Ombudsman reviewed the couple's case and determined that the homeowners took reasonable efforts to locate and fix the leak. The Water Bureau agreed to review the case in light of their recently adopted leak adjustment policy. The homeowners received a reduction.

Problem: A landlord signed their tenant up for water service without the tenant's permission. The tenant believed water would be included in rent. They ended up in collections owing more than $1,400.

Resolution: An investigation by the Ombudsman determined that Water Bureau policies allowing landlords to sign tenants up for water service without their knowledge placed an unfair burden on tenants and could have a racially disparate impact. In response, the Water Bureau agreed to reduce the complainant's debt substantially and change the policy.

Problem: A restaurant owned by an immigrant family was the victim of a significant water theft resulting in a bill far larger than normal. The restaurant already faced economic hardships because of COVID restrictions, remaining open only because of financial support from their disabled, combat-veteran daughter. They asked the Water Bureau not to hold them responsible for the stolen water. The Water Bureau has a policy of granting relief for leaks, but not theft. Had this been a leak, the family would have been eligible for a 100% waiver of the charges. The Water Bureau declined to provide any relief.

Resolution: Although the Water Bureau does not have a policy for financial relief from theft, City Charter authorizes waiving fees when it is “just and equitable.” The Ombudsman concluded that the circumstances justified granting relief. The bureau agreed to waive $2,500 in charges.

Problem: After suffering multiple heart attacks and losing his job, a homeowner was unable to pay the mortgage on his home. He declared bankruptcy and his lender initiated foreclosure, telling him to move out, which he did. Many years later, the Water Bureau, through a private collection agency, sought to hold the former homeowner responsible for the nearly $4,000 water bill that accrued after he had vacated his home. The former homeowner, who had no assets and no earned income, questioned the fairness of Water charging him for a service he didn’t use or benefit from.

Resolution: As with several similar earlier cases, the Ombudsman recommended that Water cease collection efforts against the former homeowner and instead either pursue the lender or write-off the unpaid charges. The Ombudsman cited a 2012 ordinance giving Water authority to pursue the lender in this precise situation.

Water continued to disagree with the Ombudsman’s assessment but agreed to partially reduce the bill. Later, the newly assigned commissioner-in-charge directed Water to waive the remainder.

Problem: A homeowner declared bankruptcy in 2008 and agreed to the bank’s request to surrender her home so it could pursue foreclosure. The bank then waited more than three years before formally completing foreclosure and selling it. In the meantime, the Portland Water Bureau shut off the water and continued to bill the former homeowner base charges and assess penalties because the bank refused to remove her name from the title. When the bank finally took the title, the Water Bureau sent the former owner a final bill for nearly $1,900 for services she never received or benefited from. When she could not pay, the Water Bureau authorized a collection agency to pursue legal action against her. The former owner sought help from the Ombudsman, saying it was unfair to bill her for charges and penalties accrued after the bank took control of the home.

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended that the Water Bureau cease collection efforts against the former homeowner and instead pursue the bank for the unpaid charges. In support, the Ombudsman cited a 2012 ordinance that City Council passed in response to the foreclosure crisis giving the Water Bureau authority to pursue banks that took possession of homes but delayed foreclosure. The Water Bureau partially accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendation, and reduced the former owner’s bill to about $200.

The Bureau declined a related recommendation to institute a practice of pursuing banks in similar cases, despite the direction from Council and the unfair outcomes of its current approach.

Problem: A first-time renter raised concerns about the Portland Water Bureau transferring her parents’ delinquent water bill to her account. The Water Bureau argued that the renter was responsible for her parents’ bill because at the time the delinquent charges accrued, she lived in their house and had turned 18 years old, making her jointly liable. The Water Bureau also noted that the renter’s mother had recently moved in with her. The mother explained that she and her daughter had fled their prior home due to domestic violence and had gone into hiding. The mother acknowledged owing money to the Water Bureau and asked to established a payment plan. The Water Bureau offered a payment plan that far exceeded the mother’s ability to pay, given that she was disabled and living on a fixed, low-income. When the mother was unable to make the payments on time, the Water Bureau shutoff the water to the apartment. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found the Water Bureau’s collection efforts to be unreasonable and potentially unlawful. The Ombudsman questioned the legality of holding the daughter responsible for the parents’ debt, raised concerns about a collections policy that may perpetuate generational poverty, and questioned the reasonableness of setting payment plans that do not take into account a person’s ability to pay.

The Water Bureau accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendations to restore the water service, reduce the total amount in arrears by forgiving late fees and other penalties, renegotiate the mother’s payment arrangement based on her income and ability to pay, enroll the household in the low-income discount program and offer monthly billing.

Problem: A resident contacted the Ombudsman after the Portland Water Bureau terminated her from its low-income discount program. As part of its effort to eliminate fraud in its financial assistance programs, the Water Bureau terminated the resident because it believed that she had lied on her application about how many people lived in her home.

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that the Water Bureau had improperly terminated the resident from the low-income discount program based on insufficient information and unverified assumptions. The Water Bureau also did not apprise the resident of her right to appeal the termination.

The Water Bureau accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendation to reinstate the resident after she provided additional documentation. The Water Bureau also agreed to modify its fraud initiative guidelines, including providing written notice of any right to appeal.

Problem: Several neighboring property owners contacted the Ombudsman seeking to void the Portland Water Bureau’s sale agreement for disposal of surplus green space property. The neighbors alleged lack of public process in both deeming the property as surplus and in deciding to sell it to a developer. The neighbors also disputed whether the City got a fair price for the land. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and agreed that the bureau’s surplus disposal process did not conform to best practices; however, the Ombudsman did not substantiate the neighbors’ claim that there were legal grounds for voiding the sale agreement. Going forward, the Commissioner-in-charge developed a pilot process for disposing of surplus property, which the Ombudsman supports in concept. Noting the lack of and/or inadequacy of bureau surplus disposal and sale processes across the City, the Ombudsman referred the issue to the City Auditor, who conducted a City-wide audit: “Surplus Real Property: Policy, central management, and inventory of real property holdings needed.

Problem: A resident and a condominium association separately contacted the Ombudsman seeking to challenge Portland Water Bureau enforcement actions. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman investigated and found that City Code provides the right to challenge the Water Bureau’s enforcement actions by direct appeal to the Hearings Office. However, the Ombudsman discovered that bureau employees were unaware of the Code provision and that the Water Bureau does not regularly notify customers of the appeal right.

After the Ombudsman communicated concerns, the Water Bureau stipulated that the two complainants would be given the opportunity to appeal any enforcement action.

Problem: A City employee complained about a Portland Water Bureau facility having designated smoking areas within fifty feet of the building structure. The employee initially approached bureau management to address the problem but was unsuccessful in getting a timely response. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman looked into the complaint and determined that the Water Bureau’s designated smoking areas and absence of posted notices were in violation of City Code, Human Resources Administrative Rules, and State Law. Upon receiving the Ombudsman’s assessment, the Water Bureau acted promptly to bring the facility into compliance. The Ombudsman also advocated for extending smoking restrictions to outdoor work sites. The Bureau of Human Resources subsequently revised Administrative Rule 4. 2 giving bureaus authority to designate outdoor work sites as “smoke free."

Problem: A City employee anonymously reported concerns about a Portland Water Bureau employee’s outside business subcontracting with the City on a Water Bureau project. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman initiated an investigation; however, the employee under investigation resigned before the investigation was completed. As a proactive measure, the Ombudsman worked with Procurement Services and the City Attorney’s Office to amend City Code 5. 3. 70 to expressly prohibit the City from subcontracting with a City employee, or any business with which a City employee is associated. 

Multiple bureaus

Problem: A developer complained that he was not being allowed to record deferral contracts for System Development Charges with the Auditor’s Office. The Auditor’s Office claimed it could not process the contracts because it relied on verification data from Multnomah County that had been electronically inaccessible for many months while the County updated its system. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman recommended the City develop a manual workaround so that development projects would not be unduly delayed. The eventual solution was complex and relied on the efforts of multiple bureaus, including Revenue, Development Services, and the City Attorney’s Office.

Problem: A vehicle owner reported her vehicle stolen to law enforcement. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office later recovered her stolen vehicle and had it towed to a private lot for safekeeping. The vehicle owner was charged for the tow and various other fees, including daily storage fees. The owner was unable to pay the fees or personally retrieve her vehicle, as she was unemployed and in another state because of a medical condition. As a result, the tow company took steps to take the title of her vehicle and sell it at auction, as it is permitted to do under a contract managed by the Bureau of Transportation.

Resolution: The Ombudsman asked the Bureau of Transportation to intervene. The Bureau persuaded the tow company to cap the fees and delay the auction. The Ombudsman also asked the Sheriff to consider paying the fees given that the vehicle owner was a crime victim, the existence of financial and personal hardship, and because a sheriff's deputy ordered the tow. The Sheriff agreed and the vehicle owner arranged for her mechanic to tow the vehicle and store it until she could return to Oregon.

Although this case involved the Sheriff’s office, Portland Police routinely call for recovered stolen vehicles to be towed to a private lot. Car theft victims already face the hardship of losing their vehicle. Further burdening them with towing and storage fees is inherently unfair. This issue warrants further review. 

Problem: Portland Police ordered a vehicle towed after determining it was a hazard. The vehicle owner disputed that the vehicle posed a hazard and appealed to the City’s Hearings Office. The Hearings Officer agreed with the owner and invalidated the tow. The owner attempted to recover her vehicle, but was told she needed additional paperwork from the Police Bureau. After obtaining the paperwork, the tow company said she was required to pay storage fees. 

Resolution: The Ombudsman determined that the City did not give the owner a reasonable opportunity to recover her improperly towed vehicle before incurring storage fees. The Bureau of Transportation agreed to pay the fees and allow the owner to recover her vehicle at no additional expense. 

Problem: A North Portland restaurant and music venue was cited for being out of compliance with fire and building codes. Although the owner said the venue had passed all fire inspections during the previous 15 years, the City imposed significant occupancy restrictions until the building could be updated. The owner took steps to bring the venue into compliance, but met with major delays because of difficulty getting timely information from the Bureau of Development Services and Portland Fire & Rescue. The venue lost more than $10,000 a month while the occupancy restrictions remained in effect and the owner expressed concern that further delays could put the venue out of business.

Resolution: The Ombudsman facilitated communication between the venue owner and the bureaus, leading to a conditional lifting of the occupancy limits while the owner completed the update of the building.

Not bureau or office specific

Problem: A state agency that provides financial assistance to struggling homeowners wasn't responding to a community member who was facing foreclosure.

Resolution: The Ombudsman lacked jurisdiction over the state agency, but reached out to the state senator who represents the homeowner. The senator's office wrote to the agency, which promptly responded to the community member.

Problem: A small business owner decided not to extend his solid waste disposal contract with a private waste management company. The waste management company responded that the contract could only be terminated at least 90 days -- but not more than 180 days -- before the end of the contract. Because the business owner had missed the window to terminate his contract, the waste management company said it was entitled to assess a financial penalty equivalent to six months of charges.

Resolution: The Ombudsman suggested the business owner file a consumer complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice, as the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability currently only regulates residential and not commercial solid waste hauling. After being contacted by the Department of Justice, the waste management company agreed to waive the six-month penalty. The waste management company then sent the store owner a bill that included excessive charges to pick up trash and recycling containers.

At the Ombudsman’s request, a Bureau employee contacted the waste management company, which then agreed to waive all fees. he Ombudsman suggested the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability consider regulating commercial solid waste hauling to provide adequate consumer protection for business owners. The Bureau agreed to consider proposing regulations if it receives additional complaints.

Problem: A community member who was arrested in 2009 complained that her booking photo had recently been posted on a website that features mugshots. A representative of the website told her the photo would only be removed if she could provide evidence that the charges were dismissed. The complainant requested the records from the Independent Police Review, which had reviewed a complaint she filed against the arresting officer. Her records request was denied because the complaint against the officer was resolved through mediation and such records are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Law.

Resolution: The Ombudsman sought and obtained from the District Attorney’s Office a copy of a record establishing that the charges were dropped. The complainant was then able to get her photo removed from the website.

Problem: A City employee questioned whether the City’s hosting of Red Cross blood donation drives violates the City’s nondiscrimination policies because of the Red Cross policy prohibiting sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating blood (the “MSM Policy”). 

Resolution: The Ombudsman conducted extensive research and determined that the Red Cross blood donation eligibility criteria at issue is actually federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy. Since 2006, the Red Cross has publicly supported changing the MSM Policy, calling the current policy scientifically and medically unwarranted. n 2010, an FDA subcommittee acknowledged that the MSM Policy is “suboptimal,” and efforts are underway to develop an alternative policy. In the meantime, several major cities have passed resolutions calling upon the FDA to revise the MSM Policy.

The Ombudsman advocated that the City pass a similar resolution and testified in support of City Resolution 37029, calling on the FDA to reverse its longstanding prohibition on gay men donating blood. The resolution passed with unanimous Council support.

Problem: Several City employees sought ethical guidance regarding unsolicited gifts. 

Resolution: In conjunction with the City Attorney’s Office, the Ombudsman provided information about the requirements of City and State Ethics Law and advised the City employees about any relevant acceptance restrictions and disclosure obligations.