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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2003

No fight in that dog

Robert Tongren is gone, but the question remains: Does Ohio really need a state-paid utility watchdog?

Mr. Tongren resigned last week as head of the state Office of Consumers Counsel amid well-aimed criticism that he was mostly content to wag his tail rather than bare his teeth when it came to fighting the public utilities.

The agency s governing board immediately launched what it said would be a nationwide search for a successor in the $130,000-a-year job, although a good argument can be made that the action is premature.

If the purpose is to replace Mr. Tongren with a clone of himself, the answer to the original question is no. A public official who simply pretends to represent the interests of consumers is worse than none at all.

If the purpose of the office is to delude Ohioans into thinking that their government is really looking out for them, the answer would be yes.

Ironically, Mr. Tongren s predecessor, William Spratley, was forced out as consumers counsel a decade ago because he was considered by some in the Statehouse as too aggressive.

In Mr. Spratley s stead, Mr. Tongren was tepid rather than a firebrand, preferring by his own account to negotiate quietly rather than lose highly publicized battles with the utility powerhouses and their lawyers.

Such studied submissiveness played well among the conservative, business-friendly denizens of the General Assembly, governor s office, and state regulatory agencies.

Unfortunately for Ohioans, neither the consumers counsel nor the oddly low-profile Public Utilities Commission of Ohio provided much in the way of early warning or even close questioning as sweeping electric deregulation legislation was pushed through the legislature.

Deregulation promises to put residential electric bills in the icy hands of competition that does not - and may never - exist. Instead, the scheme, which hasn t worked to consumers benefit in any state where it s been installed, virtually assures substantially higher electric bills for most Ohioans beginning in 2006.

That s a bleak prospect for Toledo-area customers of FirstEnergy, who already chafe under some of the highest rates in the state and nation.

Deregulation was foisted off on Ohioans largely without the genuine, contentious, and informed debate such an important issue deserved. And there is evidence that utilities, particularly FirstEnergy, got far more than they deserved - $15 to $20 a month per residential customer, by some estimates - in the rate-restructuring tradeoffs that led to deregulation.

Mr. Tongren was only one of the parties to closed-door negotiations over the eventual extra charges, but he did order the discarding of a consultant s report that strongly disputed the final settlement.

Who needs a watchdog that doesn t bark, much less bite?

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