There's a certain hauteur perfuming the air at the city's Office of Planning and Development Review. "We control the building code," says everything from the receptionist's tone to the unreturned phone calls. "We own you."

All that attitude, however, came back to smack OPDR in its face last week when Michael Mills, the city's ombudsman, issued a report taking OPDR to task for slapping a couple with thousands of dollars in unreasonable fines. Then he suggested OPDR might be carrying on its books millions of dollars in similar and uncollectible fines.

In 1997, a windstorm disconnected the power supply from a Northeast Portland rental house owned by Marsha and Timothy Joy. They hired a contractor to reconnect the line at a cost of $232.46, which included $70 for a reconnect permit fee owed to OPDR. According to Mills' Jan. 11 report, the contractor never sent OPDR the fee and the city's building-code agency began leveling fines--starting at $650. The Joys contacted the bureau, offered proof of payment and even offered to shell out the missing $70.

But, as Mills learned, OPDR blew the couple off until their $2,600 bill prompted a call to his office. They weren't alone in their frustration.

In its first six months, Mills' office has received 144 citizen complaints. Of those, 70 were against OPDR, making it by far the city's least-liked bureau. Even Mills hasn't had much luck working with the keepers of the building codes. As he tried to investigate the Joys' claim, he found that OPDR would not return his inquiries, either.

"At OPDR, they hunker down," he says, contrasting their approach with the Portland Office of Transportation, which is No. 2 in complaints (36) but has worked with him to resolve problems.

Margaret Mahoney, OPDR's director, did not respond to WW's requests for comment. Ron Paul, chief-of-staff to Charlie Hales, who oversees the bureau, pledges that OPDR's process problems will smoothed out. If so, there will be bumps ahead.

Both Mills and City Auditor Gary Blackmer question $4.5 million in delinquent accounts on OPDR's ledger. Both say they suspect a good number of these code enforcement fines may be uncollectible; the amount could run into millions of dollars. Blackmer's bean counters will have to review each account to determine if the figures are valid--or another example of OPDR bringing down a sledgehammer when a velvet glove should have been used.