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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

Fairness & Justice

Year & Bureau

Problem

Resolution

2018

Management & Finance

Risk Management

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.

 

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.

2018

Transportation

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.

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. 

2018

Transportation

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.

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.

2018

Transportation

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. 

The Ombudsman’s investigation found that Transportation had both neglected to inform the property owner about the option to perform 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 tell property owners about the option to perform minimal repairs.

2018

Transportation

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.

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.

2018

Management & Finance

Facilities

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.

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.

2018

Water

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.

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.

2018

Transportation

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.

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.

2018

Parks & Recreation

Urban Forestry

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. 

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. 

2018

Management & Finance

Revenue

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.

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.

2018

Transportation

Parking Enforcement

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.

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" before towing. 

2018

Transportation

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.

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

2017

Environmental Services

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.

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.

2017

Transportation

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.

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 the its own American’s 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.

 

2017

 Transportation

 

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.

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.

2017

Transportation

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. 

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. 

2017

Multiple

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.

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. 

2017

Multiple

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. 

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. 

2016

Parks & Recreation

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.

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.

2016

Transportation

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.

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.

2016

Environmental Services

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.

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.

2016

Transportation

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.

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.

2016

City Attorney

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.

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.

2015

Water

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.

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. 

2014

Water

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. 

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.

2014

Development Services

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. 

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. 

2014

Water

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. 

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.

2013

Development Services

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.

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.

2013

Transportation

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.

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.

2012

Neighborhood Involvement

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

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.

2012

Water

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

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.

2012

Procurement Services

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.

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.

2012

Revenue

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.

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.

2012

Water

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.

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 4.02 giving bureaus authority to designate outdoor work sites as “smoke free.”