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Editorials

Whose counsel?

10/19/03


Ohio Consumers' Counsel Rob Tongren's Web site touts him as "your residential utility advocate."

But Tongren hardly qualifies for such flattery. Ohio's so-called top consumer watchdog has made a series of outrageous decisions that smack of a breach of trust. The governing board of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, a state-sponsored position, should remove Tongren from his post.

To begin with, it is inexcusable that a much-sought-after confidential consultant's report that could have saved Ohioans billions in electricity costs was shredded in August. The $579,000 taxpayer-purchased report revealed that FirstEnergy Corp. had actually incurred $2 billion to $4 billion in "stranded cost" investments before deregulation, not the $8.7 billion in surcharges slapped on Ohioans. Ohioans took that hit during one of the state's harshest job-sapping recessions.

A counsel spokesman, Ryan Lippe, blamed the report's destruction on "systems" - that is, a change in document-retention policy that called for the shredding of documents annually, rather than every five years.

Tongren's staff says the $2 billion to $4 billion was just a preliminary figure, and that Tongren won more concessions from FirstEnergy during deregulation negotiations.

But there's a contemptuous theme here, played once too often by the Ohio Consumers' Counsel: Don't you little folks worry your pretty heads about electricity deregulation.

So it's no wonder that this consultant's report became a victim of "systems." Or that advocacy groups with concerns about negotiations with FirstEnergy get the brushoff.

Tongren insists that giving FirstEnergy the higher surcharges strengthened his hand at the bargaining table during utility deregulation talks. Yet all Ohioans, not just FirstEnergy executives, deserved the most accurate figures on stranded costs.

And this isn't the first time that Tongren has bargained in the shadows with FirstEnergy. This summer, it was revealed that he was holding private meetings with the utility to determine future electricity rates. An infuriated Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council, which bargains for electricity on behalf of 112 cities and up to 500,000 customers, protested that it had been locked out of the negotiations.

Tongren blamed FirstEnergy for barring NOPEC, but the real question is why any dedicated consumer advocate would consent to meetings that shoved NOPEC aside.

The latest episodes add to a pattern that shows Tongren to be a poor advocate for Ohio's consumers. He should be replaced - now.


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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