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Akron Beacon Journal (OH)

October 23, 2003
Edition: 1 STAR
Page: B2

Time to go

The job of Consumers' Counsel starts with credibility. Robert Tongren now has too little to be effective.

Robert Tongren brought helpful changes in tone and approach to the office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel nine years ago. He succeeded William Spratley, who had achievements yet too often opted for combat when negotiation would have better served consumers. Tongren bargains, reasons and persuades. He has been effective. The time has also come for him to step down.

A consumers' counsel must enjoy public confidence and jealously protect a reputation for independence. This past week, news accounts have suggested Tongren has faltered on both counts.
One of the more contentious and complex pieces of legislation to clear the Statehouse in recent years involved electricity deregulation. Much discussion turned on "stranded costs," reflecting investments made by FirstEnergy (with the approval and often the urging of regulators) that the company expected to recover over time. How much would the Akron-based firm be permitted to collect before the deregulated market took effect?

In the end, the figure was set at $8.7 billion, as part of a practical compromise, one Tongren helped to facilitate, achieving real benefits for consumers. The trouble is, Tongren sat on a report that had concluded the "stranded costs" should be less than $4 billion.

Perhaps the report would have made little difference. (The consumers' counsel paid a consulting firm $579,000 for the work.) That doesn't excuse the failure to make the information available for public debate. Tongren neglected his duty. It doesn't help, either, that the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio acted similarly with a separate consultant's report that reached the same conclusion.

Tongren compounded his problem by destroying the document after the office's records-retention policy narrowed (misguidedly) from five years to one. More, the Columbus Dispatch reported this week that the consumers' counsel has spent all too much time on the golf course, at fund-raisers and other events wining and dining, getting cozy with the executives of the companies his office oversees. A watchdog shouldn't be so sloppy.

In his own defense, Tongren cites $1.7 billion in savings that he has brought to consumers since 1994. Again, he has been effective. Unfortunately, that effectiveness has now been compromised.

Investigations have been launched by the inspector general, attorney general and the legislature. They hardly need to probe deeply to discover what is obvious: The credibility of the Office of Consumers' Counsel has been sorely harmed. The recovery should begin with Robert Tongren stepping down.

Copyright (c) 2003 Akron Beacon Journal