Marin is a Menace, Time for a New Ontario Ombudsman

Ontario’s Ombudsman Andre Marin is a menace to electricity consumers. He should be replaced when his term, extended this afternoon by a motion in the legislature, expires in September.

The Ombudsman’s recent amateurish, hyper ventilating report on Hydro One billing practices has received an ocean of uncritical reporting and commentary. Marin’s analysis does not support his conclusions.

Central to Marin’s analysis are his allegations that Hydro One is guilty of lying, systematic deceit, and obstruction of his investigation.

Marin’s evidence on these points is pitifully weak.

For example, here his entire discussion claiming to prove that Hydro One deliberately mislead the Ontario Energy Board about its billing problems:

133 On August 22, 2013, Ontario Energy Board officials toured the Markham call centre with Hydro One officials, who failed to enlighten them about the problems associated with the new customer information system. In September 2013, the board sent an email inquiry to Hydro One, asking about billing concerns it was hearing about from MPPs. A Hydro One official responded that about 10,000 customers had not received bills since the transition to the new customer information system, and mentioned that there were other “small groupings of issues related to budget billing, but other than that, nothing systemic.” Hydro One minimized the problem, assuring the board that bills would be out by the end of September, if not before.

134 When the problem of estimated bills persisted, the board wrote to Hydro One again on October 23, 2013, expressing concern. It acknowledged Hydro One’s offer to affected customers of a six-month, interest-free billing plan, but noted that it was still receiving an increasing number of complaints about billing and metering. The Ontario Energy Board has continued to monitor Hydro One’s progress in addressing areas it identified for corrective action.

Marin is a former assistance Crown prosecutor and should have some sense about the burden of proof he carries to support any claim that Hydro One was deliberately keeping the Ontario Energy Board in the dark. Claiming without context or documentation that information provided on some tour omitted some facts or that a particular email from Hydro One to the Ontario Energy Board was inadequate in unspecified ways does not begin to satisfy his burden of proof.

Who was on the tour? What was its purpose? Who said what? Where is the offending email he relies upon? Where does that email fit into the corpus of communication between Hydro One and the OEB on the relevant issues? None of these questions appear to interest Marin. His purpose is to inflame, not to inform.

Marin is unalert to the fact that all the billing issues he reports on ultimately boil down to questions of cost allocation between consumers. In March, he held a press conference to demand that “no one should be cut off” for non-payment. Within 3 weeks, Hydro One’s arrears accounts increased 6%. Marin’s report indicates no awareness of this fact.

Ultimately, the cost of such bad debt is borne by the consumers to who pay their bills. By amplifying bad debt, Marin is increasing the burden on Hydro One’s paying consumers.

It makes no sense to consider the “compassion” Marin demands for customers in arrears out of context for the compassion paying customers deserve. Marin’s report is silent on the extent of the bad debt problem at Hydro One. Nowhere does Marin recognize that 20% of Hydro One’s distribution accounts are in arrears. This is a shocking figure that deserves attention and solutions. Marin’s bloviating about “no one should be cut off” for non-payment just makes the problem worse.

Marin’s demand in the form of a recommendation that Hydro One reveal to customers in arrears all the details customers need to game the system to avoid disconnection is more ill-considered nonsense.

It appears that Marin played with the timing of the release of his report to promote his reappointment campaign. Marin’s unsubstantiated allegations of dishonesty have been carelessly repeated by the media and politicians seeking advantage, a tendency that Marin appears to have relied upon.

There is no doubt that Hydro One has made terrible mistakes in its billing practices. But, Marin’s whole intervention into the Hydro One billing problems is likely to make the collection problems at Hydro One worse, not better.

Hydro One’s customers are rightly alarmed about soaring electricity costs, but Marin is only making that problem worse. If it was functioning properly, the Ontario Energy Board would be a far better forum than an ombudsman to weigh the relevant billing issues, such as the interests of paying vs. non-paying consumers. Sadly, the current Ontario government is steadily eroding the capacity of the OEB to protect the public interest. Keeping Marin on the job because the OEB is weak would be to prefer a Bandaid over a real solution.

Marin is a menace and should not be reappointed.

12 Comments

  1. How does his re-appointment make it worse? Of course he released it & campaign for himself, that’s politics.

    • Hydro One customers rightly hate their power rates and the messed power bills they got from Hydro One when the utility’s customer information system malfunctioned after a software change in May 2014. However, it became clear at his March 2015 press conference that Marin is out of his depth in understanding how utility rates work. His careless ranting about how “no customer should be cut off” was directly harmful to consumers. If the Ontario Energy Board had any concern for protecting consumers rather than just doing what the Minister wants, the OEB would have been out in public trying to undo the damage Marin was causing.

      The opposition parties has endorsed Marin’s final report on Hydro One simply on the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I hope that by September they take a deeper look at Marin. Hydro One is hardly in a position to push back against Marin’s glib allegations that they are a pack of liars but I urge folks to consider the evidence Marin bases his allegations on before endorsing him. Marin’s allegations of lying not supported by the evidence he presents.

      Officers of the legislature, whether the Auditor General, Information and Privacy Commissioner or Ombudsman, are supposed to be impartial, expert investigators and reporters. Marin is a lightweight investigator but is a master of the megaphone. His Twitter campaign for reappointment seems to me to be particularly unseemly demagoguery. He is playing on folks who are justifiably upset with Hydro One only to promote his self interest. Five more years of that nonsense would be a wasted opportunity to have a better ombudsman.

      • > His careless ranting about how “no customer should be cut off” was directly harmful to consumers

        I’m having a hard time seeing how.

        Case in point: In 2010 I installed microfit on my home. Shortly thereafter, Toronto Hydro changed everyone’s account numbers. After that point, the company was unable to send me a bill. I called on several occasions and every time they told me the account was in good standing. I told them, point blank, that they were wrong, and that I knew I owed them money and had not received a bill. They refused to listen, I owed them nothing for the last two years.

        In spite of “owing them nothing”, in 2013 I was yellow-carded for failure to pay, with the cut-off date being Christmas Day. Nice. I called again and now they finally realized that I had two accounts. You see, the meter number had been connected to the wrong account, this second account was now three years in arrears, and they were going to charge me thousands of dollars in interest and penalties. When I pointed out that this was their problem, they actually agreed to waive the interest and penalties, as long as I made a payment.

        I did. They put the payment into the wrong account. Repeat this cycle TWO MORE TIMES, including actually cutting off the power late last year.

        I finally resolved everything this year. Actually I’m still waiting for my last bill, which is apparently around $22 dollars. That’s right, this five year saga including one threat and one real power cutoff nets out to $22.

        Now Tom, please explain how it is that Marin’s comments about not cutting people off because HO can’t figure out how to send a bill is “directly harmful to consumers”.

  2. I’m still not grokking why his re-appointment could make matters worse. I get the politics of it, enemy of my enemy yada yada…but OEB is not getting out front.

    • One test of whether an official watchdog is doing it right is whether they are making the problem they are concerned with worse. There are lots of problems our there that need fixing. Cleaning up bad debt problems that Marin helped to create shouldn’t be one of them, but is. The man is a doofus.

    • Marin’s ego (like George Smitherman’s before him) is so badly inflamed that he thinks he can fix part of the power system without the benefit of competent advice. I respect Marin’s gumption, but he doesn’t grasp the essence of the issues he is dealing with and is therefore prone to making the problems of low income consumers worse, not better. Another bull is not needed in this already smashed up china shop. Rather, somebody skilled at getting at root causes is more likely to get us moving in a less negative direction.

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