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Thursday, October 29, 2015

City Council Tries to Get Answers About Cleveland Public Power Fees

Posted By on Thu, Oct 29, 2015 at 12:18 PM

As promised, Cleveland City Council held a hearing Wednesday afternoon about alleged improprieties related to Cleveland Public Power's collection of an "Ecological Adjustment Fee."

Former Director Paul Bender told the NEOMG last week that he believed the public utility had illegally collected $128 million over the course of 16 years. A skeptical Council President Kevin Kelley said he'd get to the bottom of it.  

But not much new information was gleaned during the hearing Wednesday, which took place within a regularly scheduled Public Utilities Meeting. Much like when the Transportation committee convened earlier this month to question interim Hopkins Director Fred Szabo (ostensibly about staffing levels), pending litigation precluded the disclosure of valuable information.

But a few things were clarified:

The city's newish Public Utilities Director, Robert Davis — a Warren, Ohio, native and a former linebacker for the West Virginia Mountaineers — led with a prepared statement.

In the department's view, he said, the ecological adjustment fee was "legal, reasonable, and non-discriminatory."

No surprise there. Also no surprise that many council members appear to have been brushing up on their interrogation tactics, as the NEOMG has been badgering the city's legislative body repeatedly — and in some cases justifiably — for a lack of meaningful questioning when they bring city administrators to the table.

Kevin Kelley in particular, who has endured a pointed onslaught (in news reports, editorials, and unrelated endorsements) after he said he took the NEOMG's initial CPP story "with a grain of salt."

Kelley's position, as told to Scene, was that Paul Bender sure is a curious guy to be trusting wholeheartedly with these allegations, By the NEOMG's own admission, Bender reached out to reporter Leila Atassi to provide most of the sordid details. (Before that information was published in a Plain Dealer editorial, Scene asked Bender if he reached out to Atassi or the other way around. He said: "I don't remember.")

Anyway, he now works as a consultant specializing in utility billing systems, and Kelley's line is that Bender stands to make a lot of money if CPP loses a lawsuit and requires a monitor to oversee a settlement. Bender serves as monitor for a similar case out in Los Angeles.

Kelley kicked off questioning yesterday in straight-up lawyer mode. "What exactly is the ecological adjustment fee?" He wanted to know. "Do you have a yearly budget for it?" etc. He described the pending litigation, which continually prevented CPP Commissioner Ivan Henderson from disclosing specifics, as a law firm "suing the ratepayers." Kelley wanted to confirm that in any forthcoming legal battle, the cost would be born by CPP ratepayers.   

The fee in question, though, which is a subset of a larger power adjustment fee, hasn't been in effect since April, 2013 (back when Bender was still in charge). 

Other council members were equally bummed out that they'd been kept in the dark on all this, but most said they'd really start asking the tough questions once the details came out in a court of law. 

"That's the only reason I'm not up on this table," said Councilman Jeff Johnson, who averred that Mayor Jackson himself would have to start answering some questions.  

Councilman Brian Kazy, former Council President Martin Sweeney's chosen son in Ward 16, (who couldn't sway the PD's editorial board to give voters their blessing for a re-election), said he didn't even look at his utility bills month to month.

"My wife does that," said Kazy. "It was too confusing. And if it's too confusing for us on this side of the table..."  

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