Visitors to the popular Web site now can use the city of Portland service to track down owners of derelict properties and learn who's driving the flashy new Mercedes on the next block.

But whether making information about property owners available online is an improvement in the service or an invasion of privacy is under debate.

That conversation continues in three counties - Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah - all of which provide property assessment records to the city of Portland for use on the Web site.

For local property owners, the issue boils down to this: If you live in Multnomah County, anyone can hop online and learn your name by searching for your address. That's been true since October, when the ownership information began appearing on PortlandMaps.

Clackamas and Washington county residents, however, can stay behind the curtain.

Officials in those counties have asked PortlandMaps not to publish ownership information online, citing privacy concerns. In Multnomah County, however, online access to public information has won out, though officials say they are reconsidering the decision.

'It's public information that's available, so putting it online was extending access to the information,' said Carol Ford, director of the Department of County Management for Multnomah County.

'Over the years we'd been getting calls about why it wasn't available online because the data by property tax account has been available online for anybody for years,' she said.

The owners' names were not a part of that data until the recent change to PortlandMaps. City Ombudsman Michael Mills concurred with county officials' request to include the information on PortlandMaps, and an explanation from Mills is on the Web site.

In Washington and Clackamas counties, however, officials say they will not give the OK for PortlandMaps to publish information about homeowners. In those counties, officials said, residents have voiced concern about having the information available on the Internet, saying it increases their exposure to solicitors and, unlike the phone book, they can't opt out to protect their privacy.

Some also fear that easy access to property owner information on the Internet places residents at increased risk for scams and other crimes.

Steve Doell, president of Crime Victims United of Oregon, believes the potential for wrongdoing is great. A person who is being stalked, he said, could be particularly at risk by someone knowing that he or she owned certain property, or knowing the name of the owner of a property that often was visited.

He cited other situations - such as those involving menacing, harassment, rape or domestic abuse - where easy access to property ownership information could give criminals an edge.

'I can think of all kinds of scenarios, and I think they are legitimate scenarios, that might be putting victims at risk or creating additional victims,' Doell said.

Other data sources available

The public already has access to information about property owners through a variety of city and county resources.

At the city of Portland, an internal version of PortlandMaps is used by employees and includes information about property owners that, until the recent PortlandMaps change, was blocked from public view online.

However, people always could get the information by calling a city employee. They also could call or visit the Multnomah County Division of Assessment and Taxation, where information about property owners is made available on public computers. Those who use the service frequently can pay to access it over the Internet.

Both county and city officials received complaints about the information gap for nonpaying online users. They said the calls generally came from title companies, real estate agents, land appraisers, legal professionals, media organizations and librarians who argue that land ownership information should be more accessible for a variety of reasons.

In 2006, one real estate agent's crusade to make information about property owners available online also made headlines in Willamette Week. All of that spurred talks at the county about whether the information should be made available online.

In issuing their decision to change the policy, county officials cited media pressure as a concern.

Ford said the county tried to strike a balance with privacy concerns by not allowing information about property owners to be searched by name. Instead, property owner information is only visible on PortlandMaps in connection with a specific address.

Crime victims, police officers and other public officials are allowed by law to apply for exemptions of their personal information from public records. If they meet the state guidelines for the exemption, their names will not appear on PortlandMaps.

After the ownership information began being published, opposition came from a number of citizens, most concerned about their personal safety and privacy.

Two counties' records pulled

Opposition hit high gear last month when local news blogger Jack Bogdanski pointed to the new feature on PortlandMaps and urged readers to lodge complaints with city and county officials, which many did.

Dissent also came from two unexpected sources. Washington and Clackamas county officials never had given consent for PortlandMaps to publish ownership information from their counties.

On Nov. 19, they asked Portland officials to pull their property owner records from the site. City officials complied.

'Generally speaking, Clackamas County has a policy of not putting personally identifying information on the Internet,' said Bob Vroman, Clackamas County assessor and tax collector.

'I think many people feel it's a different matter of having it available as a public record … as opposed to publishing it on the Internet,' he said.

Vroman said citizens in Clackamas County seem more comfortable with having records about property ownership available to people who visit or phone the assessor's office than they are with having the records available to people who can search them anonymously at home.

Many have gotten used to it

Tim Gleason is a member of the board of the nonprofit agency Open Oregon, which promotes open government in the state.

He said Oregon's open records law could evolve to achieve a balance between what people want from technology, such as quick access to property ownership information, and the privacy concerns that increase with greater access.

'Nobody argues that they aren't public information. It's when they become easily accessible that we get collectively uncomfortable, because the accessibility creates opportunity for the use of this information that we never imagined,' Gleason said.

'If records are public, our goal should be to make them publicly accessible as well,' he said.

But Gleason added that it is not unreasonable for custodians of public records to address the potential harms that could come from their use.

As technology advances and personal privacy is less protected, he said, 'in some instances, I think we are simply going to get used to it.'

Other Oregon communities already are getting used to it.

In Deschutes and Linn counties, property tax records including names of owners are online. Linn County's site includes an explanation to the public about the decision to publish it.

The message says the online service helps public employees address cutbacks in staffing. It also says the online service reduces the number of repeat visits and phone calls - sometimes numbering in the hundreds - made by real estate and property management professionals.

Lee van der Voo is a former Lake Oswego Review reporter now working for the Portland Tribune.

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