Frayed wires between utilities board and Rondeau

Cross the Yukon Utilities Board with watchdog Roger Rondeau and you’ll often get sparks. And, in the runup to a review of the Crown-owned…

Cross the Yukon Utilities Board with watchdog Roger Rondeau and you’ll often get sparks.

And, in the runup to a review of the Crown-owned Yukon Energy Corporation’s 20-year plan, you can already hear the crackles.

Rondeau, president of the Utilities Consumers’ Group, is demanding “professional” status, interim funding and “letters of comfort” from the board before hearings reviewing Yukon Energy’s proposals begin on November 14th.

He wants to hire a lawyer.

That’s important because the utilities board is trying to “bypass” the Yukon Utilities Act to push through several projects in the corporation’s 20-year plan, Rondeau said.

If Rondeau doesn’t get money — he’s asked for a $100,000 advance from the board — he will “pull out” of the hearings.

And that would deprive the proceedings of any consumer oversight when Yukon Energy rolls out its multimillion-dollar wishlist for the next two decades.

Rondeau’s ultimatum follows a recent board decision affirming its discretionary power to pay intervenors based on “merit.”

That decision is aimed squarely at Rondeau.

“I think the board is severely power-tripping and they are not acting in the public interest,” said Rondeau last week.

“They don’t like what I do; they don’t like somebody second guessing their decisions.

“Everybody should be out there saying, ‘this is not a fair process,’” he said, noting the proposed $30-million Carmacks-to-Stewart-Crossing transmission line will be debated at the hearing.

“We’re worried how they’re going to allocate the costs afterwards,” said Rondeau.

“They’re going to push it through, one way or another, because it’s in the interests of Yukon Energy and the government.”

The latest directive states the utilities board will now “assess each intervenor cost application on its own merits” and “consider the value provided by the intervenor.”

The decision reflects past conflict between Rondeau and the board.

He once billed the board $74,405 for more than 300 hours of work he logged over an 11-month period.

The board paid Rondeau $1,526 — two per cent of his invoice.

The bill was cut to $35 an hour, from $225, and was then cut 70 per cent for varying reasons, including misconduct during the hearings.

Rondeau famously skipped the final hearings.

“Things were not going very well anyway with the board and Yukon Energy,” he said.

By comparison, Yukon Energy received $650,000 and the board received $246,269 to cover the cost of their submissions.

Traditionally, intervenors are covered as part of the board’s cost of business, and the bill passed to electricity consumers through rates.

In March, Rondeau took the board and Yukon Energy to court to appeal the handling of his bill.

The court rejected his claim.

The board’s recent ruling is latest development in the soap opera.

But there are ramifications, said Rondeau.

He’s recruited experienced utility lawyer Michael Janigan, of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, to represent the consumers’ group at the upcoming meeting, he said.

His presence would bolster consumer presence at the table.

But Janigan won’t work for free, Rondeau noted.

“He knows we (the consumers’ group) don’t have funding,” he said. “(Janigan) is worried about the way the utilities board hands out awards.”

The latest board decision “gives absolutely no comfort” funding will be adequate, he added.

Which is why Rondeau wants the comfort letter.

It’s essentially a guarantee of professional status — and payment of $225 an hour, said Rondeau, who’s not optimistic, despite Janigan’s qualifications.

Intervenors apply for registered intervenor status, so that’s what they’re granted, said Deanna Lemke, the utilities board’s executive secretary.

“None of them are granted professional or non-professional status,” she said.

Only lawyers and consultants that attend hearings can bill up to $225 an hour, said Lemke.

“Intervenors have their claims for cost assessed on their own merit. They don’t fall under that professional-fee category.

“They can claim whatever they want to claim, the board will look at that and the value they brought to the proceeding,” she said.

Intervener status for the coming hearing has been granted to Whitehorse, the Marsh Lake Local Advisery Council, Yukon Conservation Society, Peter Percival and the Utilities Consumers’ Group.

Observer status has been granted to Kluane MLA Gary McRobb, John Maissan, Samson Hartland, and Energy, Mines and Resources.

McRobb requested intervenor status, but was refused.

The utilities board should adopt funding arrangements for intervenors that mirror the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission — which offer similar money for all intervenors, said Rondeau.

“We need a level playing field here. The utility company (Yukon Energy) intervenors can get up to $225 an hour to do their research, but we’re lucky if we receive the $35 an hour non-professional fee.

“Nobody received it last time.”

Without a legal representative, “we don’t have the ability to defend the public interest — I’m not a lawyer,” said Rondeau.

Four projects are being discussed at the upcoming hearings, said Lemke.

Those are the Carmacks-to-Stewart transmission line upgrade that will potentially link both of the Yukon’s electrical grids, a new generator at the Aishihik facility, upgrading old diesel generators, and a proposal to raise water levels in Marsh Lake to boost the power-generating capacity at the Whitehorse generation facility.

“They’re all part of this 20-year resource plan review, so each of those will be looked at,” Lemke said.

Yukon Energy’s proposal to raise water levels by about a foot from mid August to the end of September is unpopular and will be opposed at the hearings by intervenors from the Marsh Lake Local Advisery Council.

There are four appointed members of the utilities board — Brian Morris, Wendy Shanks, Richard Hancock and Michael Phillips.

Their mandate is to fix electricity rates, oversee standards and practices and determining services Yukon Energy should provide.

Board members do not make public statements as “they feel their rulings speak for themselves,” said Lemke.

Rondeau knows he’s being pushy, but has to be to improve the situation, he said.

“The board’s hands are strapped to legal arguments; they need interveners to shed light on what is in the best interests of the consumer,” he said.

“I feel I should be compensated as well as anyone else.

“I put in hundreds of hours when there aren’t hearings to keep these people accountable.

“Without us there would be nobody else.”

Rondeau sent his request for $100,000 to the board in an e-mail.

He has yet to receive a response, he said.