By Len Gillis, Timmins Press (April 20, 2016) – Fiona Crean is here to help. That was the message this week from the new Ombudsman for Hydro One who had a quick public meeting with Timmins city council.
Timmins is one of the largest municipalities in Ontario that is a direct Hydro One customer and does not have a public utilities commission.
While Crean had no formal business to conduct with the city, she said she is letting people across Ontario know she is willing to hear their complaints against Ontario’s huge electrical energy monopoly.
“My office is an office-of-last-resort which simply means that when citizens and customers have problems with the company, they need to try to resolve the problem with the company first,” Crean told city council. “And if they remain dissatisfied or didn’t get the answer they needed they can come to the office of the Ombudsman. We’re there as an office of last resort. The work we do is confidential.”
She is the first ever Ombudsman for Hydro One, having been appointed just last month. Crean said her role comes about as the result of the partial privatization of Hydro One. She said it means that traditional authority of the Ontario Ombudsman and the Ontario Auditor General no longer applies to Hydro One.
Crean is perhaps better known as the first ever ombudsman for the City of Toronto, who was appointed in 2009 and served through to 2015. She became known for being extremely forthright and not afraid to tangle with municipal politicians and staffers who thought she was overstepping her bounds.
Crean said when it comes to Hydro One, she can deal with individual complaints, but she will also do what she called systemic investigations.
“Which is really about getting at root causes of problems so that we can remedy those problems for thousands of people, as opposed to one at a time. That’s an important piece of what this office will be doing.
“My mandate is essentially to look at complaints of unfairness about the delivery of service,” she explained, adding that her investigations might go beyond your household hydro bill.
“It could be contractors who didn’t get a contract and felt the process is unfair. It can be individuals who are complaining about issues related to forestry and right of way.”
And while Crean said her role is wide ranging, there are things she will not be acting on.
“There are a couple of things that we specifically do not deal with. One of them, for example, is the Ontario cabinet decision to privatize part of the company. The other example is the rates which are set by the Ontario Energy Board, the province of Ontario,” she said.
She said her office can investigate whether hydro rates are fairly applied, but the office will not look at the actual rate levels set by the energy board.
Coun. Pat Bamford asked Crean if she will be looking into the complaints many residents have about the so-called smart-meter used by Hydro One. Bamford said he had heard many concerns that homeowners were faced with bills that appear unjustly inflated based on energy that might not have been used.
“Yes, absolutely. It doesn’t mean I will give the citizen the answer they want, but it is a sober, second look at an arms length at that kind of situation,” said Crean.
That prompted Bamford to inquire whether Crean had the authority to make changes when she finds something wrong. Crean said it was a good point, because she only has the power to advise.
“I have extensive authority to look into matters, access to all information that the company has in its possession. At the end of the day I only make recommendations to the company, which is what all ombudsmen do. But I want to make sure that by the time I have finished an inquiry that my evidence is unassailable.”
She said it is her experience there is usually more than two sides to any story. She said the ombudsman’s office needs the ability to “ferret out what has happened” to determine who is correct and who is not.
Coun. Joe Campbell asked how independent Crean can be if she is an employee of Hydro One.
“The Hydro One ombudsman is required under the Electricity Act,” Crean explained. “I am there as an independent office at arms length from both management and the operations of the company. I report directly to the board of directors.”
“Since you are an employee of Hydro One, would you not feel pressured by Hydro One with respect to decision making?” Campbell asked.
“No, I don’t feel threatened,” Crean replied. “Might I in the future? I don’t know I can’t respond to a hypothetical.”