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Vessels at Public Docks Unlawfully Seized and Destroyed

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City conduct resulted in unlawful seizure and destruction of Portlanders’ vessels. City should follow proper procedures to better protect vulnerable Portlanders.
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Executive Summary 

The Ombudsman received a complaint in October 2022 about the towing of a boat from a City dock. An initial review of the complaint uncovered concerns about program-wide issues, prompting the Ombudsman to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the boat seizure process and practices of Portland Parks and Recreation during 2022.

Our investigation found a widespread pattern of noncompliance by Parks with state law and City Code on the towing of vessels from public docks. The investigation also revealed significant equity concerns, as Bureau practices resulted in confiscation of valuable property from some of the City’s most marginalized community members and, in some instances, left them without shelter.

Based on the findings of the investigation, we recommended that Parks bring its policies and practices into compliance with state law and City Code. We also recommended that Parks bring its practices regarding outreach to affected community members and documentation of boat tows in line with the City’s approach to community members who live in tents or vehicles. In addition, we asked Parks to promptly notify affected vessel owners of their right to file claims with Risk Management. Parks accepted our recommendations.

City Authority to Tow Vessels from Public Docks

The City manages a number of public docks.  These include Willamette Park boat ramp and dock, Cathedral Park boat ramp and dock, Sellwood Riverfront dock and hand watercraft launch, Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park north and south breakwater docks, and Swan Island boat ramp and dock. Portland City Code 19.16.060 regulates how the public may use these boat landings. In most cases, vessels are not allowed to moor at a municipal boat landing for longer than 24 hours or while the park is closed. City Code also authorizes the Parks Director to tow vessels from City docks, pursuant to Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) 830.908 to 830.948. These state laws require that certain steps take place as part of the pre-seizure, seizure, and post-seizure process of vessel tows and disposals, to ensure due process for boat owners. Additionally, Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR 250-026-0020) detail the information enforcement agencies must share with the Oregon State Marine Board when they seize a vessel.

Parks previously held an intergovernmental agreement with Multnomah County to tow vessels from municipal docks on the City’s behalf. In late 2021, after the agreement expired and due to difficulty getting a new agreement in place, Parks began its own process of towing vessels from municipal docks for the first time.  According to Parks staff, Parks referred to 2020 guidance from the Oregon State Marine Board (Abandoned & Derelict Vessels Enforcement Agency Response Guide) to develop their protocol for boat tows. Our review of the guide shows that the state laws regulating boat tows are clearly delineated, indicating Parks had access to accurate guidance about how to conduct lawful boat seizures and disposals.

When a vessel is left at a public dock without authorization, it may be declared abandoned by the enforcement agency and subject to the seizure procedures outlined under ORS 830.911 to 830.944. To proceed with vessel seizure, the enforcement agency (Parks in the case of City docks) must provide notice to the owners at least 10 business days before the vessel is seized. State statutes provide an exception to the 10 business days’ notice and allow for immediate seizure without notice for vessels that present a hazard to navigation or an imminent threat to public health or safety (ORS 830.923). The pre-seizure notice must be attached to the vessel, mailed to the last persons shown as owners of the vessel in records of the Oregon State Marine Board, and mailed to any other person the enforcement agency has reason to believe is an owner of the vessel. The pre-seizure notice must include the time by which the owners must act to avoid having the vessel seized and information about the right to appeal the seizure.

Figure 1: How the abandoned vessel seizure process is supposed to work

Chart showing the intended process for vessel seizure: A vessel left at a public dock without authorization is declared abandoned. Enforcement agency provides pre-seizure notice at least 10 business days before seizure. Pre-seizure notice is attached to the vessel and mailed to the boat owners. Vessel is seized at least 10 business days following pre-seizure notice.  Vessel is seized via tow or by seizing vessel in place (requires a seizure notice to be placed on vessel).
Source: Ombudsman's Office depiction of lawful vessel seizure process

Following the pre-seizure notice, the vessel may be seized after 10 business days by towing the vessel or posting a notice on the vessel indicating that the vessel has been seized in place. After seizing the vessel, the enforcement agency must mail a post-seizure notice to the owners within seven days and post a copy of the notice on the enforcement agency website. The post-seizure notice must provide information on the time of seizure and reason for seizure. It must also include contact information for the enforcement agency, specify that the owners may request a hearing and state how to reclaim the vessel and its contents. If the owner requests a hearing, they may challenge the seizure and/or the reasonableness of any salvage, towing, or storage costs. The post-seizure notice must also notify the owners that the title to the vessel will be transferred to the enforcement agency if the costs associated with the vessel tow and storage are not paid. By law, the title of the vessel may not transfer to the enforcement agency less than 30 days after the date the vessel was seized.

Parks’ Pattern of Unlawful and Unfair Towing and Disposal Practices Resulted in Portlanders Losing Shelter and Property

We initially found that premature seizure and destruction of vessels appeared to be Parks’ standard practice. Our comprehensive review of the six boats towed by Parks in 2022 identified several issues of serious concern related to Parks’ boat tow and disposal processes.

Issues related to Parks’ handling of pre-seizure notices

  • Parks posted multiple pre-seizure notices on the same vessel without proceeding with enforcement. This left community members understandably confused about when notices merited a response or when they held little consequence.
  • Parks’ pre-seizure notices used calendar days to calculate when a seizure might take place instead of business days as ORS 830.918 requires. As a result, community members were misinformed about the amount of time they had to move their vessels from City docks to avoid a vessel seizure, and Parks seized vessels prematurely.
  • On the pre-seizure notice, the notice of the right to appeal was drafted in a way that misdirected community members about who to call to file an appeal. In addition, the notices did not specify calendar or business days regarding the right to appeal, as City Code 3.130.020 requires. This lack of transparent communication resulted in community members having unclear information on how to file an appeal and the deadline for doing so, creating barriers to them exercising their right to an appeal.
  • Parks did not provide the Oregon State Marine Board with a copy of the pre-seizure notice on the same date it was sent to the owner as required under Oregon Administrative Rule 250-026-0020, illustrating noncompliance with state law and a lack of recordkeeping.

Figure 2: This Parks’ pre-seizure notice mistakenly used calendar days instead of business days to notify boat owners of their vessel being at risk of seizure 

Scanned image of a pre-seizure notice issues by Portland Parks and Recreation Park Rangers.  The date of April 2, 2022, 11:36 in the morning, is circled.  The Subject of the notice is a White sailboat with blue trim at South Breakwater Docks - Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park.  The Seizure date and time is listed as 12:30 in the afternoon on April 12, 2022, and this date is also circled.
Source: Ombudsman's Office analysis of Parks’ vessel seizure records

Issues related to Parks’ implementation of vessel seizure, post-seizure, and disposal

  • Parks erroneously treated vessels as seized after posting the pre-seizure notice to the vessel, without posting a separate seizure notice to the vessel as required by ORS 830.928(1)(b). In one instance, Parks mailed a letter to the owner indicating that their vessel had been seized in place. However, under state law, enforcement agencies must post a notice on the vessel indicating the vessel has been seized and providing the name, address and telephone number of the enforcement agency (ORS 830.928(1)(b)). Due to this error, Parks destroyed vessels after 30 days had passed since the pre-seizure notice, when the vessel had never actually been seized. This action denied the boat owner of their right to retrieve their vessel post-seizure. Oregon law makes clear that for a vessel to be seized, a pre-seizure notice must be sent to the boat owners. The seizure of the vessel may then take place 10 business days following the pre-seizure notice, either through the physical seizure of the vessel (i.e., towing) or by posting a notice to the vessel indicating that the boat has been seized in place.
  • Due to missing records, it’s not clear whether Parks consistently provided post-seizure notices to boat owners after their vessels were seized. For some vessels, Parks’ records indicate that the required post-seizure notices were sent to boat owners. However, Parks was unable to provide copies of these post-seizure notices for each vessel it towed, making it unclear if Parks consistently followed state law in its post-seizure process. Post-seizure notices communicate to boat owners that their vessel has been seized and provide information on how to retrieve it. Not receiving a post-seizure notice denies boat owners of their right to information regarding their vessel and personal property.
  • Parks’ post-seizure notices to boat owners did not include a description of any personal property, as required by ORS 830.931(3). This lack of documentation resulted in the withholding of information from boat owners about personal belongings that were included in the seizure and jeopardized their right to due process.  
  • Parks engaged a vendor that regularly destroyed boats directly after towing them, rather than storing them for the required 30 days to allow owners to retrieve their vessel and/or request an appeal hearing. Invoices from the vendor indicate that vessels were destroyed in periods ranging from 7 days after the tow to the same day of the tow. Thus, Parks unlawfully disposed of community members’ vessels and personal property, resulting in community members unfairly and unjustly losing their property and in some cases, their shelter.

Engagement with individuals living on vessels and removal of personal belongings

  • Parks did not engage social services to find a constructive solution for community members who were living on their vessels. This contrasts with how the City generally relates with people living in tents, cars, or RVs. Engaging social services would help connect vulnerable community members to needed resources and help ensure that the towing of a vessel does not result in a vulnerable community member being deprived of essential human needs, such as shelter.
  • Parks regularly removed boat owners’ personal belongings from their vessels prior to towing   but did not inventory the items. Parks initially had boat owners’ personal belongings removed and stored by their boat tow vendor, A-1 Marina; this service was later sourced from Rapid Response. As a result, Parks could not account for boat owners’ personal belongings. Such a practice makes it more likely that the City may unjustly deprive community members of their vital personal belongings, such as medications or identification documents. This contrasts with how the Impact Reduction Program treats personal belongings of those living in non-house shelters (tents, RVs, etc.). The Impact Reduction Program has written procedures for managing personal belongings that are removed from encampments. These include taking an inventory of personal property removed from campsites and recording this information in a text-searchable database.

Recordkeeping and procurement processes

  • Parks was unable to provide us with copies of post-seizure notices for all vessels it towed in 2022 or to supply photographs or records of personal belongings associated with each of its tows. This missing documentation raises concerns about Parks’ ability to ensure due process for community members and sufficiently review their own process.
  • Parks had no contract in place for the services rendered by their vendor, A-1 Marina, which Parks paid a total of $32,578 in 2022 in a series of distributed purchase orders. City procurement rules provide that distributed purchase orders may only be used to pay vendors when the total amount for goods and services will not exceed $10,000. Engaging a vendor without a contract raises concerns about a lack of oversight of the vendor’s practices and may have increased potential risk of liability for the City.
  • Parks selected A-1 Marina as a vendor without an open, competitive procurement process, in violation of City Code (5.33.190) that requires bureaus to seek three bids for purchases greater than $10,000 but less than $150,000.  Not engaging in an open, competitive procurement process makes it difficult to ensure that City resources are being used judiciously and effectively.  

Parks’ Boat Seizure and Disposal Practices Harmed Marginalized Individuals

Parks’ noncompliance with state law and City Code had significant consequences for affected community members. The following cases highlight the impact of Parks’ practices on Portlanders. 

One Portlander lost their shelter and their lawful opportunity to retrieve their vessel when Parks lawfully seized but prematurely destroyed their boat

Boat owner A was living on their boat at North Breakwater Docks when Parks began notifying them of being out of compliance with dock regulations, issuing multiple voluntary compliance notices between November 2021 and March 2022 without initiating enforcement proceedings.

On April 2, 2022, Parks issued a pre-seizure notice to owner A, stating their vessel would be seized on April 22, 2022. Parks also issued the owner an exclusion notice on April 13, 2022, stating the owner could not enter the dock for 30 days. The owner appealed both the exclusion notice and the pre-seizure notice to the Hearings Office. The Hearings Office found in favor of Parks in both cases, upholding Parks’ pre-seizure notice and exclusion notice. In the instance of boat owner A’s vessel, Parks did abide by the ORS 830.918 requirement of providing 10 business days’ notice for pre-seizure. This appears to be an exception to Parks’ typical practice of providing 10 calendar days’ notice, as was observed in the other pre-seizure notices we reviewed.

Parks, however, failed to comply with state law regarding storage of the vessel, disposing of the vessel immediately upon its seizure on July 6, 2022. Parks was also unable to provide us with a copy of a post-seizure notice for the vessel or photographs of the personal belongings that Parks removed from the vessel. Parks records indicate that boat owner A’s belongings were held by A-1 Marina, the same vendor that towed and disposed of the vessel. According to Parks, the owner did not retrieve any of their personal belongings. Due to the missing post-seizure notice, it’s not clear whether or how Parks informed the owner about how to do so. It’s possible the owner was not aware of their rights to retrieve their vessel and/or belongings or their right to a post-seizure hearing.

According to the owner’s pre-seizure appeals to the Hearings Office, their vessel had been damaged due to theft, making it unfeasible for them to remove it from the dock. The owner was working to make repairs and had nowhere else to live except on their vessel. While Parks had followed the lawful pre-seizure process for initiating enforcement proceedings, their lack of compliance with seizure and post-seizure regulations left the owner without their lawful opportunity to retrieve their vessel or belongings. Parks also failed to ensure that the owner was connected to relevant and appropriate social services prior to seizing their shelter.  It is not clear what happened to the owner following the seizure of their vessel.  

Parks destroyed another community member’s boat without proper notice of seizure

Records indicate that boat owner B regularly visited their vessel at North Breakwater Docks and paid docking fees when able to. The owner informed Parks staff, via handwritten notes posted to their vessel, that they were working to fix the engine and would move the boat when that was completed. From November 2021 to March 2022, Parks posted numerous voluntary compliance notices to the vessel, without initiating enforcement proceedings.

On June 15, 2022, Parks issued a pre-seizure notice to the owner and on June 25, 2022, Parks mailed a letter to the owner erroneously stating that the vessel had been seized in place by Parks. However, Parks did not place a notice on the vessel stating that it had had been seized in place. Parks had failed to provide 10 business days’ notice prior to seizure, as required by 830.918(1), and failed to comply with ORS 830.928(1)(b) that states that to seize a vessel in place, an enforcement agency must post a notice on the vessel that indicates it has been seized.

In August 2022, Parks began coordinating the tow of the vessel, scheduled for August 24, 2022. While coordinating the tow, Parks’ tow vendor saw that the owner had posted a note stating they were waiting on the engine shop and that their father had passed away. The tow vendor asked Parks if the tow would still take place and Parks answered in the affirmative, posting a written note to the vessel indicating the tow date. This was not a formal pre-seizure or seizure notice, but a general voluntary compliance notice and an attempt by Parks to make the boat owner aware of the impending tow.

However, Parks made no attempt to call or email the owner to notify them of the upcoming tow, despite knowing that the owner had just experienced a loss and may not return to their vessel for a time. Even if not required as part of the process, making a quick phone call or sending a brief email to the owner alerting them to the upcoming tow date would have been a basic courtesy. As a result, the community member potentially lost an opportunity to comply with Parks’ request to move the vessel or collaborate with Parks to find a solution that may have worked well for both parties.

Figure 3: This note indicated an owner’s request for more time to comply with Parks’ notice to remove the vessel from the dock due to life circumstances 

Photograph of a Portland Parks and Recreation Docking Permit Receipt showing dates and boat license. Handwritten at the bottom of the printed card, read the words, "Waiting on engine shop. Father passed away also. Going through the motions."
Source: Ombudsman's Office analysis of Parks’ vessel seizure records

Figure 4: Parks responded to the owner's request for more time by placing notice of the upcoming tow date on the vessel, but made no attempt to call or email the owner, despite having the owner’s contact information

Photograph of a yellow sign with the word NOTICE at the top. Underneath are the words "Request for voluntary compliance - Please remove boat from this dock."  The date is listed as August 22, 2022. The Park location is listed as North Breakwater.  The sign says the boat will be removed by Tow Date schedule for August 24.
Source: Ombudsman's Office analysis of Parks’ vessel seizure records

As with the five other towed boats in 2022, Parks’ vendor unlawfully disposed of boat owner B’s vessel before the 30-day storage requirement ended. Upon learning of the tow of their vessel, the owner contacted Parks to inquire about their vessel and personal belongings, expressing their deep personal investment in the vessel.

While Parks staff were able to advise the owner on how to retrieve the belongings that had been removed from the vessel, the vessel itself had already been destroyed. The owner was also never informed of their right to request a hearing within 10 business days of vessel seizure. The owner retrieved their personal belongings that had been removed from the vessel by Parks, indicating their investment in their property. Had the owner known about their right to request a hearing, it’s possible they would have pursued the opportunity to do so.

One Portlander lost their home and personal belongings due to Parks’ unlawful seizure and destruction of their vessel

Parks seized and towed a sailboat moored at the South Breakwater Docks because it was out of compliance with posted regulations, including exceeding posted time limits and docking overnight without a permit. The vessel’s owner lived on the boat.

From November 2021 through March 2022, Parks posted nine notices to the vessel requesting voluntary compliance with dock moorage rules. When Parks attempted to tow the vessel that spring, they were unable to do so as the owner was on board and moved the vessel from the dock themselves. Specifically, on April 2, 2022, Parks issued a pre-seizure notice to the vessel. Parks’ vendor attempted to tow the vessel on April 29, 2022, but the owner was on board, and, according to the owner, they moved their vessel from the dock to comply with Parks’ request to have it removed. Parks noted the vessel on the dock again in May 2022 and proceeded to post four more voluntary compliance notices to the vessel from May 2022 through September 2022.

On September 29, 2022, Parks posted a pre-seizure notice on the vessel, indicating the vessel could be seized on or after October 9, 2022, 10 calendar days after notice, if not moved from the dock. On October 12, 2022, nine business days after the pre-seizure notice, the vessel was seized and towed from the dock. As part of the seizure, Parks elicited the help of Portland Police, as boat owner C was initially misidentified as another individual who moored their boat on the dock and had been documented as a safety threat. In the process of conducting the tow, Police detained and arrested boat owner C who was aboard their vessel.

During the tow, Parks coordinated with Rapid Response to remove some of the boat owner’s personal belongings from the vessel. Rapid Response took photographs inside the vessel but did not inventory the personal belongings that were removed or those left behind. Further, Parks failed to connect the owner with social services that could help ensure they experienced a safe transition to other shelter prior to their vessel being seized.

The owner appealed the tow to the City’s Hearings Office. On October 24, 2022, the Hearings Officer ruled that Parks’ seizure of the boat violated the requirements of ORS 830.918(1) to wait at least 10 business days before seizing an abandoned vessel and ordered Parks to return the vessel to the appellants within three business days. However, Parks’ vendor had already dismantled and disposed of the vessel.

When the owner learned that their boat had been prematurely destroyed and that Parks withheld this information during the hearing, they filed a motion seeking sanctions against Parks. The Ombudsman submitted a brief supporting the motion for sanctions. The Hearings Office again found in favor of the appellants, sanctioning Parks the maximum civil penalty ($10,000) for withholding material facts during appeal proceedings.

Even though the appellants received a favorable outcome at the Hearings Office, Parks’ actions rendered the owner without shelter and without belongings of personal value. Further, Parks’ involvement of Police based on a misidentification needlessly escalated the situation, causing distress and harm to the owner. It is also not clear that Parks had legal authority to remove boat owner C from their vessel to tow it.

Recommendations

The Ombudsman’s Office understands that Parks may have valid health, environmental, and safety concerns for towing vessels from City docks and has the authority to do so. However, Parks must comply with state law and City Code and should engage with community members in fair and humane ways. To break the cycle of unlawful practices and remedy affected individuals, we recommend that Parks:

1. Provide immediate notice to each boat owner who had a vessel towed of the mistaken premature destruction of their vessel and their right to file a claim with Risk Management. Notice should be provided via mailed letter as well as through other forms of contact that are associated with known boat owners, such as phone numbers and/or emails.

2. Develop written procedure for Parks’ boat tow and disposal process that complies with all requirements of ORS 830.908 to 830.948, including pre-seizure, seizure, and post-seizure/disposal requirements.

3. Follow established outreach and documentation processes when engaging in boat tows that involve individuals living on their vessels. This includes stating the exact date of the seizure, maintaining a searchable inventory of any personal property removed by Parks, providing timely and accurate information about how personal property may be retrieved, and informing all homeless outreach social service organizations contracted by the Joint Office of Homeless Services of the intent to seize a vessel that is serving as a community member’s shelter.

4. Follow City procurement rules when engaging contractors for boat tows and ensure adequate oversight, including by requiring contractors to maintain proper documentation of pre-seizure, seizure, and post-seizure notices and regularly reviewing documentation to assess whether state law and City Code are being followed.

5. Determine whether Parks has authority to remove personal belongings from towed vessels. If it is determined that Parks has this authority and Parks chooses to remove belongings from vessels, belongings should be consistently inventoried and photographed, with Parks providing clear and prompt notice to boat owners about how to retrieve their belongings.

6. Keep accurate and well-maintained records of all City-initiated boat tows, to ensure due process for boat owners and to guarantee the process can be reviewed. Making records well maintained would include keeping a searchable list of all vessels to have received any notices related to compliance or enforcement proceedings (including voluntary compliance notices, pre-seizure notices, seizure notices, and post-seizure notices) and folders containing the associated documents (e.g., copies of the notices, correspondence with boat owners, photographs of personal property, tow invoices, etc.).

7. Ensure proper due diligence when coordinating with Police for assistance. Assistance from Police should be used sparingly, such as when engaging with individuals who have been documented as a safety risk. Before engaging Police, Parks should consider whether employing individuals certified in non-violent de-escalation would be more appropriate in challenging situations, similar to the approach taken by the City’s Impact Reduction Program.


Response to the Report


Contact

Office of the Ombudsman

City Auditor's Office