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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

Systemic and Policy Reform

Year Topic

Summary

2018

Police

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. 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. 

2018

Management & Finance

Revenue

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. 

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.

2018

Development Services

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.

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 comply with the new rules.

2018

Development Services

 

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.

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.

2018

Transportation

In 2016, 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.

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.

2015

Removing barriers to justice

It was a common complaint: community members who believed the City had made the wrong decision could not figure out how to appeal and faced exorbitant fees to exercise their rights. Seeing a potentially systemic problem, the Ombudsman surveyed City code and rules and discovered nearly 200 different administrative procedures for the public to appeal City decisions.

The City decisions ranged from towed vehicles and water shutoffs to permit denials and property exclusions. The appeal procedures varied. Notification was inconsistent. The filing fee for some appeals exceeded $1,300.

Fundamental to a fair appeals process is knowing your rights and affording the filing fee. The Ombudsman worked with bureaus and public stakeholders to propose setting minimum notification standards and limiting the filing fee for appeals to the Hearings Office to a nominal amount.

City Council unanimously approved the Ombudsman’s proposed reforms.

Photos: City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero introduces the Ombudsman's Administrative Justice ordinance to City Council in April 2015. The League of Women Voters, National Lawyers' Guild, Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon, Office of Equity and Human Rights and members of the public testified in support.

2015

Combating contracting fraud

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. To make matters worse, state law precluded the City from taking action against the business.

The Ombudsman sought a systemic fix. City Council agreed to propose state legislation giving local governments the power to punish businesses that defraud the City’s social equity in contracting program. Governor Kate Brown signed the bill into law after the Legislature unanimously approved it. The City can now sanction businesses that flout the law and undermine its efforts to reverse historic discrimination in contracting opportunities.

June 17, 2015 photo: Governor Kate Brown's ceremonial bill signing for Senate Bill 584, a City of Portland initiative.