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Critics blast Ontario power deregulation

Energy Board review seen as evidence that province knows the system is failing

Globe and Mail - November 2, 2002
by Richard Mackie

The Ontario government has admitted it failed to protect consumers by ordering a review of the agency responsible for overseeing the new, competitive electricity market, representatives of the opposition parties charged yesterday.

Premier Ernie Eves, reacting to increasing complaints about escalating electricity prices, last month ordered a full review of the mandate, procedures and staffing of the regulatory agency, the Ontario Energy Board.

He ordered the review more than five months after the Conservative government opened the $10-billion-a-year electricity market to competition and privatization.

"The Ontario Energy Board was clearly not resourced or financed or in any way given the opportunity to prepare for hydro deregulation and competition," said New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton.

Liberal Party energy critic Michael Bryant said, "Reviewing the mandate six months into the new market means the mandate was botched in the first place."

Tom Adams of the Energy Probe watchdog agency argued, "A regular, scheduled, bloodless review . . . is a great thing. A politicized witch-hunt, trying to pass blame over to the OEB as a way to react to public concerns . . . is just the wrong approach."

The complaints were echoed by Burlington Conservative MPP Cam Jackson, who called on the government yesterday to freeze electricity rates at last year's levels.

"The government must immediately review hydro rates, which have become far too high, not only for low-income families and seniors, but for most of my constituents," said Mr. Jackson, who was dropped from the cabinet earlier this fall after his personal expenses were questioned.

He pointed to Mr. Eves's decision to order a review of the energy board as evidence of problems in the new market.

"I . . . call for the freezing of hydro rates at last year's levels until we can proceed with a new plan that protects hydro consumers with more assurance," he said.

A similar call was made earlier last week by Gary Carr, the Speaker of the Legislature, who is the long-time Tory MPP from Oakville.

Dan Miles, communications assistant to Energy Minister John Baird, rejected the criticism of the decision to review the board.

"The minister wants to review the OEB to ensure we keep in step with developments that are going on and that it has the resources that it needs," Mr. Miles said.

A consultation paper on the review issued by Mr. Baird late last month says, "Improving efficiency at the OEB itself will enable the board to better carry out its mandate -- especially important as the Ontario energy sector is growing more complex."

The paper notes that while some changes have been made at the board, "Further improvements are needed."

Most of the changes up for discussion are procedural. But the paper also raises the issue of whether staff are paid enough to attract and retain the best people possible.

Salaries are restricted because they are tied to the public-service schedule of compensation, the paper says. "The OEB should also be able to attract and retain the best talent available. This may require more flexible compensation arrangements."

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