Lines firm fobbed off customers - council

TOM HUNT
Last updated 05:00 09/01/2014

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Wellington's lines company was accused of "fobbing off" customers and "denying all knowledge" of electricity faults on its network in the aftermath of the June storm, council documents reveal.

Wellington Electricity (WE) has been reviewing its response to the storm but says the public should generally only call it in an emergency and it only opened phone lines to deal with the flood of post-storm calls.

A once in a generation storm pounded the Wellington region on the night of June 20, cutting 30,000 customers from the power grid.

By mid-August, many street lights remained out. While councils are in charge of individual street lights, WE is in charge of the circuit that runs them.

Now, documents released by Hutt City Council show mounting frustration as customers bombarded the call centre after - as one council staffer put it - WE staff "fobbed" them off about street-light outages.

While a late-June email applauded WE's "awesome response", an email from another council staff member on August 13 said: "I am more than sick and tired now of taking verbal abuse from callers for something that council is powerless to take control of."

An email the next day said WE "could at least accept responsibility". In response, WE apologised for not accepting queries. A staff member said he would get the call centre to alter its "scripts" if necessary.

WE chief executive Greg Skelton yesterday said a working party was planned for this year with the region's councils to ensure there was better communication in similar outages.

It had conducted a review of its handling of the situation. It was due out soon.

While WE did open its phone lines to the public after the June storm, the standard procedure was for people to first call councils for street light outages and retailers for home outages.

People should generally only call WE in emergencies, such as live wires on the road.

WE prioritised getting residential power back on before street lights, he said.

Hutt City Council roading manager Ron Muir said the council remained disappointed with WE's response to fixing street light circuit problems. There were feisty discussions between the council and WE management in the storm aftermath about WE fobbing people off, he said.

Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean said the council met with WE at the "highest level" after the storm.

"We have expressed our concerns about the need to share accurate information and keep lines of communication open with the community."

But he acknowledged the situation was complex, with numerous organisations involved and a "huge" level of damage.

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WE did a good job of helping vulnerable residents, making sure the council could assess public health needs, and working with health providers to ensure vulnerable people had power, he said.

Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett said residents in his area also felt "fobbed off" by WE so turned to the council for help.

The council had since been in discussions with WE about how it could better communicate with customers after a mass outage.

- The Dominion Post

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