08/17/2011 06:14 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2011

ComEd Customers Lash Out At Utility During Heated, Six-Hour Hearing

A public hearing held by ComEd in north suburban Highland Park was intended to address the summer's widespread power outages in the Chicagoland area in addition to building community support for the utility's proposed smart meter program and rate hike.

But the hearing quickly became tense as the utility's customers and elected officials alike criticized, and some even heckled, ComEd, as ABC 7 reports. One attendee, Jane Mordini, called the utility "a joke" offering power reliability comparable to "a third world country." The attendee reported that she had sustained 20 power outages over the course of the year. Others reported losing power for days at a time -- some of whom were among the nearly 900,000 Chicago area customers who lost power in the strong July 11 storm.

"You get several explanations," Mordini told ABC 7. "One is, it's a squirrel or a tree, and my response is 'Yeah, but you built your system on a planet that has squirrels and trees.'"

(Scroll down to watch a video report from the Tuesday hearing.)

The hearing, overseen by the Illinois House Public Utilities Committee, lasted some six hours and attracted about 200 attendees, the Chicago Tribune reports.

"Put down your torches and your pitchforks," the committee's chairman, Rep. Thomas Holbrook, D-Belleville, said with the hopes of calming the outraged hearing attendees, according to the Tribune.

In response to criticism, ComEd has said that the storms seen this year in Chicago are among the strongest they have ever had to deal with and that they are working to improve their customer communications. Had their proposed "smart meter" technology been in place before the storms, they claim that far fewer customers would have been left in the dark.

The smart meter program's bill -- Senate Bill 1652 -- has been threatened with a veto by Governor Pat Quinn (D) who argues that the program, with its associated rate hikes, is "really about locking in guaranteed, significant annual profits for the utility companies without any real oversight."

Ann Pramaggiore, president and chief operating officer of ComEd, said Tuesday she was "personally aware of the public’s frustration," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "They want fewer outages and prompt restoration of power when lines go down. So do we.”

But some state legislators are still unsure about the amount of regulation ComEd will be subject to should the program and rate hike be approved by Quinn.

The bill eviscerates the ability of the ICC to oversee ComEd,” state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said, according to Lake Forest Patch. “They (ComEd) have to be subject to external pressure.”