News

Hydro One sale means loss of ombud oversight

By Antonella Artuso, Queen's Park Bureau Chief

Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun)

Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun)

TORONTO - 

The sell off of a majority stake in Hydro One will leave its customers without access to their staunchest defender.

Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin said he’s concerned that his office won’t retain the power to investigate public complaints about the massive electricity company after it passes largely into private hands.

“It would just be a shame to not have independent oversight over Hydro One,” Marin said in an interview. “I would hope that if the government proceeds with legislation to privatize 60% of Hydro One, that it would consider, as well, provisions for continued oversight. Otherwise, these people are going to be left high and dry.”

Jennifer Beaudry, a spokesman for Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, confirmed that Marin would lose oversight of Hydro One but the government will ensure that the company appoints its own ombudsman to respond to public complaints.

“Hydro One would become a publicly-traded company which has different oversight and disclosure requirements than a Crown corporation,” Beaudry said in a statement. “Hydro One will continue to be regulated by the Ontario Business Corporations Act and the Ontario Securities Commission.

“If the government legislation receives Royal Assent, the Ontario ombudsman’s oversight would cease but the ombudsman would have six months after that date to conclude any outstanding investigations.”

Marin launched an investigation into Hydro One billing and customer service last year after receiving a “tsunami” of public complaints about wildly excessive, inaccurate and delayed bills and a “slippery pig” of a grievance resolution process.

That ongoing probe is now the largest ever undertaken by his office, with more than 10,500 public complaints and an average of 10 new ones coming in every day, Marin said.

Despite a special interim report issued by his office to expose bogus service cut-off threats by Hydro One, those warnings are still occurring, he said.

“The hardest hit people by Hydro One are those who live in rural areas and often they are the seniors, people who are on fixed income, and they’re very frustrated in having to deal with what they believe is an uncaring bureaucracy,” Marin said. “I’m told that some MPPs have one dedicated staff in their office just to handle Hydro One complaints.”

The premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets issued recommendations Thursday, accepted by the Kathleen Wynne government, that the province proceed with a partial sale of its interest in Hydro One.

The council recommended that “certain legislative and government regulatory and policy requirements that are applicable to government entities” be removed from the new Hydro One.

Beaudry said a new dedicated ombudsman at Hydro One would be able to receive and investigate customer complaints, as happens at other public companies.

New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath said an in-house ombudsman beholden to the directors or shareholders of Hydro One won’t bring the same oversight offered by Marin’s independent office, which reports directly to the provincial legislature.

Only the Ontario ombudsman can ensure accountability and an unbiased approach that reflects the public interest, she said.

“It’s a bad deal for the people of Ontario,” Horwath said. “You think you have a hard time with Hydro One now? Wait until it behaves like your cellphone company. Wait until it behaves like (Hwy.) 407.

“If you’re having those kinds of fights with your hydro that’s going to turn off your electricity, it doesn’t take people much in terms of the stretch of their imagination to see how bad it’s going to be.”

Progressive Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli said the Wynne government is prepared to create a beer ombudsman, but doesn’t want the province’s ombudsman looking over Hydro One’s shoulder despite all its problems.

“This just gets ridiculous,” Fedeli said.

Marin said his counterpart in Australia advised him that he has oversight of private power companies, indeed many private companies that provide consumer services such as cable.

It’s “bizarre” that his office is about to gain some oversight of large urban electricity distribution companies such as Toronto and Ottawa Hydro yet could lose that power over Hydro One, the largest electricity distribution company in the province, he said.

“It just wouldn’t make sense to exclude us,” Marin said. “Maybe the beer ombudsman will be overseeing Hydro One.”

antonella.artuso@sunmedia.ca

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