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Province holding ratepayers in contempt, lawyer says

The Ontario government is holding electricity ratepayers in contempt as its lawyers stall a challenge to a $53.7 million green energy charge imposed last year, says the lawyer for a consumer group.

Robert Warren, lawyer for the Consumers Council of Canada, levied the accusation in a stiffly worded letter to the Ontario Energy Board.

The consumers council has complained to the board that the green energy levy imposed on hydro bills last year is unconstitutional.

The levy, which will cost a typical consumer about $4 a year, is an indirect tax, Warren has argued; Canada’s constitution doesn’t allow provinces to levy indirect taxes.

But Warren says the case has dragged on far too long because of repeated stalling by the attorney-general’s office, which represents the province at the hearings.

A spokesman for the attorney-general disagrees.

In the latest go-round, Warren had requested policy planning documents from the ministry of energy relating to the levy, and was given material that had been heavily edited.

The board then ordered the province to produce unedited documents.

But now, the attorney-general is asking for a further delay in producing them because a senior lawyer is on vacation, and an appeal of the board’s decision is possible.

Warren says in a letter the delays have become intolerable.

“It is perhaps understandable that the government of Ontario is in no hurry to return the $53 million it directed the Board to have electricity distributors collect from ratepayers,” Warren writes.

“But the repeated delays, at the request of the Attorney General, now amount to a gesture of contempt for the legitimate interests of electricity ratepayers.”

“We are now more than a year from the time of the filing of our clients’ original application, and we are not remotely close to a resolution of the substantive issue,” he says.

In an interview, Warren said disclosure of the documents is important.

“The government should be prepared to disclose to the public why it makes its decisions when it’s going to cost you $53 million,” he said.

Warren said he can only speculate that the government is trying to keep the issue off the radar because of the looming election.

“I have to assume the Liberal government does not want a decision regarding a $53 million claim one way or another decided before the October election. It highlights the whole energy issue that they want to run away from.”

Asked to comment on Warren’s complaints, the attorney-general’s office sent a statement saying: “Ontario has proceeded in a timely manner throughout in keeping with the complexity of the case.”

It added that the government’s latest request for extra time “is in entirely appropriate and consistent with the Ontario Energy Board Act.”

The board ruled on Monday that the province must comply with the order, or file a court appeal, by June 30 The province had asked for a deadline of July 8.