Never before in Central Maine Power’s 119-year history has the company been under assault from more directions. CMP is facing a storm of attacks for how it treats and bills its customers and whether it’s telling the truth about problems at the utility.
State regulators have launched investigations into storm response, rate charges, company earnings and a proposed transmission line. Attorneys for ratepayers are seeking a class-action lawsuit over extraordinarily high electric bills. They are even alleging corporate fraud – saying CMP trained its workers to blame spiking bills on customers, rather than the company’s faulty billing and metering systems, a charge CMP strongly denies.
The company’s new president and CEO, Doug Herling, acknowledges the firestorm, saying “we’re probably the most mistrusted company now.” But his explanation for the public relations nightmare sounds like an alternate reality to CMP’s many detractors.
Herling blames social media, news coverage, suspicion of CMP’s foreign ownership and opposition to company initiatives as primary reasons for that mistrust.
Critics aren’t buying it.
“They need to stop blaming the customers and acknowledge that customers are being overcharged and they will put a stop to it,” said Lauren Loomis, who administers the CMP Ratepayers Unite Facebook page.
The group, which now has 5,634 members, was formed in the wake of an October windstorm that left 450,000 customers without power, thousands of whom complained about CMP’s response and ensuing high bills. Billing complaints continue to stream in, Loomis said, despite assurances from CMP that problems are being fixed.
Herling says he’s working on it.
During a recent interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Herling was both defensive and thoughtful about his company’s predicament. A 55-year-old Maine native who has spent much of his adult life working for CMP, he admitted being stung by the ugliness of the public criticism.
PRAISING METERS SEEMED TONE-DEAF
He even found himself personally at the center of one recent controversy, a misstep that to CMP’s critics underscores how tone-deaf the company has become.
In July, CMP issued a news release to note steps it had taken to harden and back up its smart-meter network, which was hobbled when power was off for days during the big storm. But before listing the upgrades, Herling thought it was important to praise the meters’ performance.
“At the height of the October wind and rain storm,” Herling said, “the smart meter system gave us excellent data on the scope of damage, and as repairs progressed, it allowed us to confirm restoration more efficiently.”
It took 10 days to get everyone back online. Two days after the storm, CMP couldn’t retrieve information from roughly half of the meters. And 10 months later, thousands of customers are still stewing over poor communication and sky-high bills that they think are the result of malfunctioning meters or bad billing software.
Against that backdrop, Herling’s statement didn’t ring true to the company’s critics, and they pounced.
In early August, the state’s public advocate, Barry Hobbins, said it sounded to him like CMP was in denial. An adversary in the Legislature, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said the company should admit its mistakes to regain public trust. A resident who frequently posts criticisms of CMP on social and mainstream media was more blunt: “Doug Herling lies like a rug,” Nancy Sosman wrote.
In the end, a story intended to restore confidence in the company turned into another chance to bash CMP.
Herling cited an irony: Compared with most Maine corporations, CMP is very transparent. It’s heavily regulated by a state agency that controls its earnings, orders its managers to testify and can ask to see all its email.
“And yet, we’re probably the most mistrusted company now,” he said.
Viewed in a larger context, CMP is under siege at a pivotal time.