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Politics Watchdogs warn Wynne’s Hydro One plans would remove oversight

In a highly unusual move, the eight government accountability officers are calling on the Liberal government to reconsider its plan to bar them from investigating complaints about Hydro One as soon as the privatization process starts later this year.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

The Wynne government is removing independent oversight of Hydro One's finances and service quality as part of its plan to privatize the massive electricity agency.

The legislation to privatize Hydro One would shield the company from all of the province's accountability officers – including the Ombudsman, the Auditor-General and the Integrity Commissioner – as soon as the sale of shares starts later this year.

Hydro One customers would no longer be able to complain to the ombudsman about poor service or faulty billing. The company also would no longer be subject to freedom of information requests, employees' salaries would not be published on the sunshine list and executives' expenses would be kept secret. Lobbyists could meet with Hydro One staff without their names being publicly disclosed.

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The Liberals are aiming to sell 60 per cent of the company on the stock market over the next four or five years, retaining a 40-per-cent stake for the government.

On Thursday, eight independent accountability officers took the extraordinary step of writing to the government asking it not to hide Hydro One from their scrutiny.

"The Officers believe that the government's proposals … will reduce the scope of the reviews that can be conducted on behalf of the people of the province. They encourage the government to reconsider its decision to remove Independent Officer oversight of Hydro One and its subsidiaries, given that the government will control Hydro One assets well into the future," they wrote.

The watchdogs are appointed by an all-party legislative committee, which allows them to criticize government policy without fear of repercussions.

Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk, who signed the letter, said it makes no sense to remove oversight of the company while it would still be partly controlled by the government.

"It takes all the authority from all the independent officers away," she told The Globe and Mail. "[Hydro One] will be government-controlled for many years … from a finance perspective, you will still be consolidating Hydro One for a number of years to the public accounts. So the urgency in taking the independent officers out of the picture I can't quite comprehend."

Hydro One has required intervention from the oversight officers in the past to fix problems. Last year, for instance, Ombudsman André Marin revealed he had received thousands of complaints from Hydro One customers who were overcharged for their electricity or received shoddy service. A report last winter by Ms. Lysyk criticized Hydro One's handling of the Smart Meter program.

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Financial Accountability Officer Stephen LeClair, who also signed the letter, said he could no longer investigate how Hydro One's business decisions would affect electricity prices, supply to customers and the economy.

"This legislation prevents my office from examining any of the impacts that the planned activities of Hydro One might have...so, for example, if they're making significant capital investment decisions, what might the impact be on the provincial economy? On the energy distribution system and supply to customers?" he said in an interview. "There may be issues related to what effect decisions might have on prices available for both residential and industrial consumers of electricity."

Deputy Premier Deb Matthews said removing the watchdogs' oversight is simply part of the process of turning Hydro One into a private company.

"We are moving it to look like and to be a publicly traded company and not an agency of government," she said.

In a statement, Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli said the government would also set up an internal ombudsman at Hydro One to handle complaints. This office, however, would report to the company's board, not the legislature, making the position less independent than that of the provincial ombudsman or other watchdogs.

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown called the government's plan "alarming," particularly given that Hydro One has been the subject of so many complaints.

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"This is an area where there is significant public concern, and there is going to be no oversight," he said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said: "These private companies are not responsive at all to the people of Ontario. What [the Liberals] are basically saying is: 'We're going to hand over Hydro One to these companies where there is no public oversight.'

With files from Elizabeth Church

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