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Hydro One appoints new board, wants review of Avista purchase to restart

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 22, 2018

 (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
(Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Hydro One Ltd. has installed a new board of directors in the aftermath of a political shake-up that jolted the Canadian utility’s efforts to acquire Avista Corp.

With a new board in place, the Toronto-based utility is asking Idaho regulators to resume their review of the proposed sale. Avista also signed the motion, which asks Idaho regulators to set hearing schedules and make a decision on the $5.3 billion purchase of the Spokane-based utility by mid-December.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission will review the request at its meeting Tuesday in Boise, according to commission spokesman Matthew Evans. Last month, the PUC had indicated it would continue the review after Hydro One’s new board was in place and a new CEO was chosen by the board.

Both Hydro One and Avista encouraged the Idaho PUC to start the review before the new CEO is hired, indicating the recruitment process could take a while.

The two companies want a decision on the sale before the end of the year, a timeline that Washington and Oregon regulators have agreed to meet.

For the sale to go through, utility regulators in states where Avista operates must determine the sale benefits customers.

Idaho’s PUC paused its review of the sale in July, after the the unexpected retirement of Hydro One’s chief executive and the resignation of its entire, 10-member board. The shake-up came at the request of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who took office in late June.

Ford campaigned on a platform to replace Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt and the utility’s board of directors, tapping into customers’ anger over high electric bills amid what Ford said was excessive executive pay.

The province of Ontario is Hydro One’s largest shareholder, with a 47 percent stake in the utility, and the province has the ability to remove the board of directors.

Hydro One’s new board contains four members chosen by the province and six selected by Hydro One’s other largest shareholders, which are investment funds. The search for a new chief executive will be the board’s “highest priority,” according to Hydro One’s motion.

The Avista Customer Group, which represents ratepayers opposed to the sale, is urging the PUC to hold off on scheduling hearings until after the new CEO is in place.

“The previous CEO, Mayo Schmidt, was a driving force in the merger proposal and was set to testify at (the) hearing,” Norman Semanko, the group’s attorney, wrote in an email. “Now we and the PUC are being told there may be no CEO available to testify at the hearing at all.”

Hydro One’s chief financial officer, Paul Dobson, has been serving as the utility’s acting chief executive. Much of the testimony at future hearings will cover safeguards to ensure the “operating flexibility and independence of Avista, irrespective of who the new CEO is,” Hydro One’s motion said.

If Idaho regulators delay setting a hearing schedule, they’ll lag behind other states and could prevent the sale from being finalized this year, the motion said.

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