Molly Mendoza
Molly Mendoza

PEMBINA PIPELINE wanted to show Mayor Charlie Hales Portland's propane future.

It was April 14, and the Canadian company's plans for a $500 million export terminal in North Portland had just won the favor of the city's Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC). With the matter set to go before Portland City Council, Pembina thought Hales should see the Port of Portland terminal where the biggest private investment in city history would sit.

"We held off offering a site tour of Terminal 6 for Mayor Hales and city commissioners until after the PSC voted, but now would like to extend such an offer," Pembina lobbyist Gary Conkling wrote to mayoral policy staffer Jackie Dingfelder on the morning of April 14. "Do you have a free moment to talk about this?"

As lobbying communications go, the email's dull. It's what the message revealed about public records access in the city that's noteworthy.

Earlier this month, the mayor's office responded to a public records request from the Mercury by claiming it had no record Conkling ever sent an email to Dingfelder on April 14. After being supplied with proof of the email's existence, Hales' staff reversed course, saying they'd turned it up after all.

It wasn't an isolated reversal. According to Hales' chief spokesman Dana Haynes, the hiccup with the Mercury's request was the second such incident that week alone.

"All government searches are done by people," Haynes says. "You get the results you get. We try to get all the documents. We assume we get all the documents."

That's a worrying statement. In the case of Conkling's invitation, there were independent records confirming the email existed, and Conkling readily sent the Mercury a copy when asked.

Situations like that aren't the norm. Often, members of the public seeking communications to and from public employees can only offer parameters for their requests—things like dates or people involved—and trust that all the records will be produced. It's clear that's not necessarily the case with the Mayor's office.

"If it was an important, weighty [email]," Haynes concedes, "that would have been really problematic."

The scenario surprised people both in and out of city hall. Staffers in city commissioners' offices said they take pains to be thorough when requests for staff emails come in. Same thing in county government.

"For Multnomah County, transparency is at a premium," says Dave Austin, the county's chief spokesman. "Public records law is very clear, and if something is public in our email system it can be found right away and turned over to anyone who requests it."

Haynes blames the inconsistency on the city's relatively recent switch to Office 365, a subscription service from Microsoft. The city couldn't say exactly what the system costs each year, but it's at least $382,000 to give all city employees bare-bones access. Many employees use more expensive plans.

"We have had more problems with our searches," Haynes says. "I've done searches from my computer at one point and got nothing, waited five minutes and done the exact same search and came up with something."

In the case of the missing Conkling email, Haynes says Dingfelder searched her emails and turned up nothing. When shown that the email existed, the mayor's office asked the city's Bureau of Technology Services to search the city's records archives.

In fact, Portland's Office of Management and Finance (OMF), which includes the city's IT staff, says problems might arise from the way the mayor's office stores its records. Mayoral staffers frequently back up emails on the city's archive system—known as TRIM—something other offices say they do relatively rarely.

"It sounds to me like the issue is not Office 365 as much as that the mayor's office archives their email not in Outlook, but in the city's archive system," says OMF spokeswoman Jen Clodius. "Frankly, I find that system problematic."

To recap: If you request an email record from the City of Portland, you're potentially running up against a new system the mayor's office says is buggy, and an official archives system the city's management office says is problematic.

City hall staffers asked about Office 365 confirm there were issues with the software at the outset, but say that those have largely disappeared. And Jenifer Johnston, a deputy city attorney who handles matters related to records requests, suggests problems have arisen largely because people aren't sure how best to phrase records searches. She notes the city is providing training every month for people who work with public records.

"Process improvement is an ongoing process," she says. "It's not like I can tell you that we've got it now—it's all fixed."

There's a new effort underway to improve things. According to Haynes, the mayor's office came up with a fresh strategy for fielding records requests after the Mercury raised concerns: It will forward all requests for public email records to the City Attorney's Office.

"If they get glitches, they're going to monitor the glitches," Haynes says. "I'm not gonna do it on my computer."