Having started her professional journey at The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) as a legal intern in 1982, Maureen Willis, J.D. ’83, is now the agency director. She officially stepped into the position on October 1, 2023. Through decades of relentless dedication to public interest and utility law, Willis has consistently championed consumers, tirelessly advocating against formidable "lawyered-up utilities."
“I really am very honored and thankful. It [agency director] feels to me like it’s the pinnacle of my career. I strongly believe that the people in our agency are our greatest asset. They are the people that help give a voice to our consumers,” said Willis. “One of our biggest objectives is to preserve and protect our at-risk consumers. We have a lot of low-income customers, and sometimes they can’t afford to pay their utility bills, or in order to pay their utilities, they have to forgo paying other bills or even go without food.”
In recent years, Ohio residents have faced heightened challenges with increased rates of COVID-19 and job losses. Against the backdrop of a nationally rising cost of living, Willis and the OCC have witnessed a surge of consumers facing difficulties.
“In Montgomery County, where Dayton Power and Light, now AES Ohio, operates, one-third of consumers live at or below the poverty level. My recollection is that those are 2019 figures. The need is great, and the consumers really need someone to protect and advocate for them. The OCC goes into cases and we argue about affordability, whether there can be more relief for consumers through bill payment assistance or moratoriums on disconnections during the winter months. We’re in very uncertain and unsettling times, especially for power. Electricity prices have gone up quite a bit lately, and affordability of rates is a big issue for us.”
Founded in 1976, the OCC was “established as a statutory representative of residential consumers.” The agency boldly represents consumers in crucial proceedings before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, federal regulatory bodies, appellate courts, and the Ohio General Assembly. Notably, the OCC vigilantly monitors public utilities, ensuring strict adherence to regulatory standards that safeguard consumer protection. The OCC also plays a pivotal role in empowering consumers through educational initiatives, providing valuable insights into utility issues impacting their bills and overall service quality.
“We want consumers to be informed so they can make educated decisions about their electric and gas supply. Right now, in Ohio you have a choice,” Willis said. Ohio consumers can compare suppliers and make wise energy choices by using the resources available through OCC.
Rooted in her legal expertise, Willis attributes her foundational knowledge to her education at Capital University Law School. The insights gained in lecture halls and the law library continue to guide her in effective problem-solving today.
“I had really good instructors at Capital. I found them to be challenging and what they drove home was that law is about solving problems. It’s a very practical approach. Lawyers are problem solvers,” Willis said.
One of the issues that Willis is working to fix as agency director is refunds for consumers. The OCC states that Ohioans have been denied $1.5 billion in electric refunds since 2009.
“The law in Ohio is unfortunate. Even if the court supports our stance that the charge appealed by the OCC was unlawful, our consumers won't receive a refund for the money they paid. There exists a legal precedent dating back to a 1957 case that prohibits the retroactive retrieval of funds collected from consumers,” Willis explained. “This has been an effort for many years from our agency, but I’d like to get refunds for our consumers. It’s a very big concern for us, and I feel it needs a legislative fix.”
Willis emphasized, "It takes courage to be in this position. Just do the right thing, that’s what I strive to do for Ohio consumers.”
For more information about Capital University Law School, visit https://www.law.capital.edu/.
To learn more about The Office of Ohio Consumer’s Counsel, visit https://www.occ.ohio.gov/.