Posted February 4, 20209:21 am
CLEVELAND, Ohio – This past fall, when city-owned Cleveland Public Power cut the electricity to 57-year-old Adam Jefferson’s low-income apartment, he said he begged the utility for an affordable payment plan that would help him resolve his debt while keeping his lights and heat on.
CPP denied his request, he says, instead demanding full payment before it would restore power. After living in a darkened apartment for the past few months, wearing all his clothing at once to stay warm, Jefferson now faces eviction because maintaining utility service is required by his lease.
Under city ordinance, the disconnection notice Jefferson received should have explained that he has the right to appeal. That appeal would then be heard by CPP’s Board of Review, which could rule on whether he qualifies for a payment plan or some other reprieve from disconnection based on disability, senior citizen status or extreme weather conditions that would make it unsafe to live without power.
But CPP’s disconnection notices don’t provide this information, and here’s why: There is no board of review.
CPP confirmed as much, to my astonishment.
“We have only had one request for a Board of Review, and the requester never showed on two separate occasions,” a CPP spokeswoman said in an email. “We will convene a Board at the request of a customer, but now we don’t have a standing Board.”
Let’s just spend a moment considering the absurdity of that statement. The right to have a dispute heard by a CPP review board was established by ordinance in 1982. So, is CPP claiming that in the nearly four decades since then, only one customer – ONE out of 80,000 served by CPP at any given time -- has ever needed to exercise that right? If you believe that, I’ve got a coal-fired power plant in Meigs County to sell you.
The more likely scenario, of course, is that customers are unaware that they have the right to formally challenge their bill or a utility disconnection, because CPP fails to publish that information on its website, or even on disconnection notices, where the law requires it.
Still, taking CPP at its word that a board would be assembled to hear a dispute upon request, I called customer service. Without mentioning that I was a cleveland.com columnist, I asked a representative how one would go about requesting a hearing before an impartial panel.
“We don’t have anything like that,” she said. And there you have it.
Phil Althouse, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland told me in a recent interview that the absence of a review board not only violates city ordinance, it flies in the face of a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring it unconstitutional for a municipal utility to terminate service without giving customers a chance to voice their complaints.
“Without a board of review, and without including on final notices the language explaining the customer’s rights, every residential disconnection by CPP violates the city’s own ordinance,” Althouse said. “How is that due process?”
Althouse and his colleague, Legal Aid attorney Anne Reese, said that clients they’ve represented in disputes with CPP have come close to suing the utility. But CPP has always managed to resolve the customer’s complaint before litigation would have exposed CPP’s miscarriage of due process, they said.
Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley told me in a recent interview that his staff fields complaints from constituents regarding CPP and usually tries to help resolve them directly with the utility.
“I’ve never referred people to a review board, and quite frankly, it wasn’t a tool that I was even aware of,” Kelley said. “But any issues with due process we take very seriously, and we’ll work toward correcting this.”
Establishing a review board isn’t just about fulfilling some arcane requirement buried in the city ordinances. Without an impartial panel to hear complaints, the door is wide open for CPP to mistreat its customers with impunity. And many have complained about exactly that to the Cleveland End Poverty Now Coalition, to Legal Aid and to the Better Business Bureau. Improper notification before utility disconnection, violations of the city ordinance governing disconnections for the elderly or disabled, and failure to help customers reconnect for a low fee during the coldest months are just some of the accusations customers have made against CPP.
(It bears mentioning here that, by contrast, the Cleveland Water Department, which serves customers in the city and more than 70 other Northeast Ohio communities, does have an easily accessible complaint process and review board.)
Having covered Cleveland City Hall for several years of my career, I know well the pressure CPP is under to remain competitive with its private sector counterpart, FirstEnergy. But depriving Clevelanders of their right to due process is no way to maintain a competitive edge, especially considering that FirstEnergy is governed by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which offers multiple ways for customers to file formal complaints and have them heard.
The End Poverty Now Coalition says it is about to send CPP a list of demands, calling for the creation of a review board, more transparency and an end to practices that violate city law. CPP should take those demands seriously or risk the consequence the utility fears most – that its customers will realize they have a choice of providers, and the competition plays by the rules.