The investigation began in October 2022 after Ombudsman Jennifer Croft received a complaint about a towed boat. That led to a “comprehensive investigation into the boat seizure process” which found “a widespread pattern of noncompliance by Parks with state law and City Code on the towing of vessels from public docks.”
“State law is very clear that state law agencies need to store vessels for 30 days to allow boat owners to appeal to the tow and retrieve their vessel if they’d like to,” said deputy Ombudsman Elizabeth Martinez. “Instead, we found that parks routinely destroyed vessels immediately upon towing them.”
The City of Portland manages public docks, including 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.
Most of the time, boats can’t moor at a municipal boat landing for more than a day or while the park is closed.
The Parks Director is allowed to tow boats from these docks but needs to follow state laws on seizures and disposals. The laws are in place, in part, to make sure boat owners get due process.
In late 2021 an agreement between PPR and Multnomah County to tow boats from the city docks expired. Without a new agreement, “Parks began its own process of towing vessels from municipal docks for the first time,” the Ombudsman report said.
It was at this point PPR developed “their protocol for boat tows,” but did not follow the “clearly delineated” state laws on how to do this.
The Ombudsman report “initially found that premature seizure and destruction of vessels appeared to be Parks’ standard practice.” They listed multiple examples of how PPR’s “pattern of unlawful and unfair towing and disposal practices resulted in Portlanders losing shelter and property.”
Among the repeated mistakes PPR made was using calendar days — not business days — to let boat owners know their boat might be seized.
They also “erroneously treated vessels as seized after posting the pre-seizure notice to the vessel,” then destroyed the boat after 30 days even though, technically, the boat had never been seized.
State law requires the boat owners to be officially notified their boat was taken. “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.”
And, the Ombudsman report said, PPR hired a vendor “that regularly destroyed boats directly after towing them, rather than storing them for the required 30 days…”
The vendor, A-1 Marina, was hired without a contract and did not go through the “open, competitive procurement process” in direct violation of city code.
People treated badly
Portland Parks & Rec regularly took the personal belongings of the boat owners off the boats before they towed them — but did not inventory the items. Because of that, PPR “could not account for” the personal belongings of the boat owners.
They also did not use social services that were available to help the boat owners, some of whom were living on the boat. Nor were they able to provide photos or records of the personal belongings of each person.
Boat Owner A
Beginning in November 2021 and continuing through March 2022, “Boat Owner A” — who was living in the boat at the North Breakwater Docks — received multiple notices their boat wasn’t in compliance with code. On April 2, Boat Owner A received a notice the boat would be seized on April 22.
The owner appealed, but lost. And on July 6, the boat was seized — and then immediately destroyed. The owner’s personal belongings, which were held by A-1 Marina, were never returned or retrieved by the owner.
Boat Owner A was working to repair the damaged vessel and had nowhere else to live.
The Ombudsman said PPR followed the pre-seizure process correctly in this instance — but “their lack of compliance with seizure and post-seizure regulations left the owner without their lawful opportunity to retrieve their vessel or belongings.”
It’s also unclear at this time where Boat Owner A went, since PPR did not connect the owner to “relevant and appropriate social services.”
The Ombudsman listed 7 specific recommendations for Portland Parks & Rec to implement:
- Immediately tell each owner whose boat was prematurely destroyed they can file a claim
- Develop a written procedure that follows all state laws
- Use outreach and documentation processes with those whose boats are being towed
- Follow city procurement rules when using contractors
- Determine if PPR can remove personal belongings from towed boats
- Keep accurate and well-maintained records
- Use police sparingly
In a response letter dated August 18, PPR Health, Safety and Emergency Manager Vicente S. Harrison said they are “committed to implementing the actions outlined above.”
KOIN 6 News will have more information later in the day.