March 17th, 2010 5:33 pm | by BETH SLOVIC News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, City Hall

City Hall: Read the Redacted Memo. Then Celebrate Sunshine Week!

Media Exposure Event for Open Government
What follows is a two-fer! It's a brief explanation of an obscure City of Portland funding stream called the utility license fee and, in a round-about way, it's an example of local government's end-run around transparency. It's just not exactly straightforward. So bear with me.

Here goes. Last month, Commissioner Dan Saltzman suggested using Portland's utility license fee to help fund the Bicycle Plan for 2030. That appeared to surprise Mayor Sam Adams who, the next day at his State of the City address, proposed using the utility license fee to fund scholarships to Portland Community College and Mt. Hood Community College.

That same day, Feb. 5, I request more information from the city about the utility license fee. Specifically, I requested a 2008 memo from Casey Short, a former City of Portland budget official, about the City Council decision in 2008 to devote part of the utility license fees to the cash-strapped Portland Bureau of Transportation. That was the pot of transportation money Saltzman wanted to help fund bicycle boulevards. And the memo, I heard last month, offered background on that funding mechanism, which Adams began when he was a commissioner.

On Feb. 24, after much wrangling, the city gave me the memo. But city officials redacted an entire paragraph from the memo's third page. Laurel Butman, a spokeswoman from Portland's Office of Management and Finance who emailed me the memo, said the redacted paragraph contained privileged, attorney-client information. Never mind that the author of the memo was not a city attorney. He was a budget wonk.

This brings me to my point. Oregon public records law contains numerous exemptions that give local government power (or, sometimes, the mistaken idea) that they can keep from view any number of documents they don't want to share with the public.

On Thursday, March 18, WW and the Society of Professional Journalists from Oregon and Southwest Washington are co-sponsoring a fundraising concert at Berbati's to help pay for SPJ's advocacy around open government and public records. Tickets are $5, and bands include Pep Assembly, Bombs Into You, and the Angry Orts.

Which brings me back to the utility license fee. Here is the memo [PDF]. [And in case you don't want to read it, here's the summary: Normally, the utility license fee goes straight to the city's general fund, which means commissioners can use the money for anything from graffiti abatement to Portland police. Dedicating a portion of it to the transportation bureau limits the license fee's flexibility -- without giving the transportation bureau a stable source of funding.]

Redacted Memo from City of Portland
WW has learned the paragraph city government didn't want you to see says this:

"The City Attorney's office is concerned with the language here that ties the ULF to use of the right-of-way. The City has successfully argued in court on more than one occasion that the ULF is separate from right-of-way use, and we should not be including in an ordinance a finding that is counter to the City's official position and City Code language that has helped defend challenges to the fee and retain General Fund revenue."

Pretty explosive stuff when you consider the budget office was basically reminding Adams' office that his proposed ordinance put the city in legal jeopardy. One can begin to understand why the city would want to redact that, even if public records law in Oregon would appear to frown on that.

But —and this is a big but— the final Aug. 6, 2008 ordinance didn't mention the phrase "right-of-way." The city appears to have fixed whatever legal liability might have been in draft versions of the ordinance. So, should the city have had the right to redact the graph? That's a question I hope SPJ asks Attorney General John Kroger about at the March 31 meeting on Oregon's public records law.

There are two morals to this story. One, come to Berbati's Thursday night. And two, bring a friend. The work that SPJ does for public records doesn't benefit reporters alone.
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