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Published: Thursday, 9/22/2011

Ohio's watchdog resigns, citing state's disregard for consumers

BY ALISON GRANT
(CLEVELAND) PLAIN DEALER
Executive portrait of Janine Migden-Ostrander, Consumers Counsel. Executive portrait of Janine Migden-Ostrander, Consumers Counsel.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL A. FOLEY Enlarge

COLUMBUS -- Ohio's watchdog for utility customers resigned yesterday, saying Gov. John Kasich and legislative leaders have made it impossible for her to serve as a tough advocate for consumers.

Janine Migden-Ostrander, known for years of aggressively challenging utility companies, said budget cuts that forced the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel to slash its staff by about half and shut its consumer call center were a "travesty."

She will leave as consumers' counsel Oct. 15. The agency named Bruce Weston interim consumers' counsel while members search for a permanent replacement. Mr. Weston has been the agency's deputy consumers' counsel and legal director since 2004.

The office represents residential utility consumers in Ohio -- some 4.5 million households -- before state and federal regulators and the courts.

Ohio lawmakers chopped the agency's two-year operating budget from $8.5 million to $5.6 million, with an additional $1.5 million to be taken away next year. The agency is funded by charges against the utilities and not tax dollars.

The office subsequently cut more than 30 positions and curtailed or ended work on cases before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, as well as ended one-on-one responses to consumer complaints about utility service.

Ms. Migden-Ostrander said Mr. Kasich and House Speaker William Batchelder (R., Medina) exhibited a "profound disinterest and disrespect" toward residential consumers. She said she got no response when she tried repeatedly to speak to them about her agency's impending cuts during spring budget talks.

Mr. Kasich, who pushed to downsize the agency on the grounds it was overstaffed and duplicated functions of the PUCO, was hosting an energy summit yesterday in Columbus. "Good luck to her. I wish her the best," he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Batchelder said the speaker had a schedule conflict the day Ms. Migden-Ostrander asked to meet, so he sent a senior staffer to talk with her.

"In regards to her departing, the speaker wishes her all the best in any future endeavors she may undertake," spokesman Mike Dittoe said.

Ms. Migden-Ostrander contends that low-income and middle-income Ohioans are suffering from hikes in gas and electric utility rates that she said were "quite dramatic" in the past decade. One in 10 Ohio households has utilities disconnected every year because of nonpayment.

Ms. Migden-Ostrander is headed to a job as a principal with the Regulatory Assistance Project, a global nonprofit. The organization focuses on the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the electric and natural gas industries.



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