PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland leaders have unanimously agreed to pay $200,000 in attorney fees after a doomed bid to avoid releasing decades-old legal documents.
The documents the city officials were forced to release deal with the long-contentious issue of how utility bureaus are supposed to handle ratepayer money, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
Retired developer Mark Bartlett first requested three legal opinions and a memo from the city in September 2015.
At the time, the city was preparing to disconnect open-air reservoirs in Mount Tabor Park — an area where both the Bureau of Parks and Recreation and the Water Bureau owned land. Bartlett believed the city was inappropriately treating the land as if it had one owner — instead of being owned by the water bureau, which is funded by ratepayers, and the parks bureau, which gets money from the general fund.
Bartlett asked for legal opinions and a memo he had seen mentioned in an email, dating back to the 1980s and 1990, which he believed detailed the rules around keeping assets of rate-payer bureaus distinct from those of general fund bureaus.
He believed the documents would show the city was knowingly violating its own rules.
The city denied the request, claiming attorney-client privilege, which gives people the right to keep their communication with their attorney confidential. Bartlett appealed to the Multnomah County district attorney. Then district attorney Rod Underhill sided with him, citing a state law that said — with few exceptions — documents older than 25 years must be disclosed.
But Portland’s election officials made the rare decision to keep fighting, reportedly worried they would receive inferior legal advice if their attorneys knew everything would one day be made public. The city sued Bartlett, asking a judge to declare that the documents he wanted were covered by attorney-client privilege.
The move concerned government transparency advocates.
A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge ruled for the city. But the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed that decision and on appeal the Oregon Supreme Court ruled for Bartlett in April. Justices wrote that they had “no authority to rewrite public records law” and suggested the city take the issue to the state legislature.
According to deputy city attorney Denis Vannier, who presented to City Council on Wednesday, Bartlett’s attorneys said they were going to ask for $405,000 in attorney fees. The city agreed to settle with Bartlett and pay $200,000.