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The City of Portland, Oregon

Office of the Ombudsman

A division of the Portland City Auditor's Office

phone: 503-823-0144

email: ombudsman@portlandoregon.gov

1221 SW 4th Avenue, Room 310, Portland, OR 97204

Navigating Bureaucracy

Year Bureau

Problem

Resolution

2018

Transportation

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.

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. 

2018

Environmental Services

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. 

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.

2018

Environmental Services

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. 

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. 

2018

Police

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.

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.

2018

Police

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.

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

2018

Multiple bureaus

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. 

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.  

2017

Environmental Services

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. 

 

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.

2017

Development Services

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.  

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.

2017

N/A

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.  

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.

The 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.

2017

N/A

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. 

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.

2016

Development Services

Fire & Rescue

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.  

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.

2015

Transportation

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. 

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.

2015

Risk Management

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.

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.

2015

Environmental Services

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.

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

2013

Water

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.

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.”

2013

Emergency Communications

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.

The Ombudsman investigated and determined that the calltaker 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.