City Ombudsman finds Poor Communications in Toronto Hydro Pole Replacement Project

28 February 2019

The City of Toronto's Ombudsman says Toronto Hydro did not notify a number of east-end homeowners that it would be replacing and/or installing new hydro poles on the City right-of-way in front of their homes. When some complained, says Susan Opler, the homeowners found that the utility’s responses were late, incomplete and sometimes rude. "Toronto Hydro did not treat these people fairly,” says Opler. “This was not the quality of service Torontonians should reasonably expect.”
 
Ombudsman Toronto began its Enquiry after six residents in Toronto Danforth (the old Ward 30) complained that Toronto Hydro was installing new poles in front of their homes without notice. The utility’s own guidelines and communication plan required that it notify affected homeowners in advance, but Ombudsman Toronto found that Toronto Hydro did not tell people in eight of the 28 of homes directly affected by Project Carlaw that they would be getting new poles.
 
The Enquiry also found that the communication that did occur was incomplete, confusing, and did not give people the information they needed. While Toronto Hydro agreed to change some proposed pole locations at the request of homeowners, it was unable to do so in apparently similar circumstances, but did not explain why. The Ombudsman says this was procedurally unfair. “People were not told how to request an alternate location, or how to escalate their complaints.”
 
Homeowners also complained about other aspects of Toronto Hydro's customer service. They still had the old poles on their front lawns more than a year after new ones had been installed, with no explanation. In one case, Toronto Hydro had police visit a homeowner at 7 a.m. after she asked what would happen if she planted a tree in the proposed pole location. “Toronto Hydro overreacted” says Opler. “The homeowner was simply frustrated and it was unfair to characterize her question as a threat.”
 
The City's Ombudsman made 13 recommendations for Toronto Hydro to improve its communication about pole replacement projects like project Carlaw, including:
  • reviewing, revising and following its own communications plan for projects affecting large numbers of residents
  • providing notice to all affected residents and considering delivery methods that are verifiable
  • meaningfully engaging the local City Councillor
  • training staff and developing templates to ensure that Toronto Hydro's communication with the public is respectful
  • using plainer language in notice letters and on the website
  • being prepared to apologize when necessary, including to two of the residents who complained to Ombudsman Toronto
Toronto Hydro accepted all of the Ombudsman’s findings and has agreed to implement the recommendations by September 2019.
 
In a letter responding to the Ombudsman's report, Toronto Hydro management accepted the need for improvement in customer communications during capital work and informed the Ombudsman that the corporation has initiated a process of revising and restructuring this area of service. "Toronto Hydro is confident that its renewed approach will address your recommendations, respond to the needs and expectations of our customers, and better meet our own standards of excellence for customer service," it said.
 
“Toronto Hydro is planning to replace many of the 178,000 hydro poles it has all across the City," says the Toronto Ombudsman, "so we need to make sure that these types of communication problems do not continue to occur. We are pleased that Toronto Hydro has committed to implementing the improvements we have recommended."
 
The Ombudsman Toronto report, Enquiry into Toronto Hydro’s “Project Carlaw”: Pole Replacement in the Former Ward 30 and an Ombudsman Toronto Backgrounder are available at ombudsmantoronto.ca or by request.
 
For more information, contact:
Natalie Kaiser
Outreach and Communications Coordinator
Ombudsman Toronto
416-397-5435
Natalie.Kaiser@toronto.ca

Ombudsman Toronto listens to and investigates people’s complaints and concerns about City administration and the fairness of City services. We are a free and impartial office that operates independently from the City, holding it accountable to the people it serves.