An advisory panel, headed by former Molson Inc. CEO James Arnett, produced an artfully worded report that provided plenty of wiggle room Â– maybe too much from the government's point of view.
The panel concluded that senior executive pay at government-owned Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Hydro One is about 25 to 30 per cent higher than it should be for a public utility.
But the panel rejected notions of hard caps on salaries or immediate rollbacks for executives now under contract, and left open a loophole allowing salaries above the norm in "exceptional circumstances."
In the panel's definition, these circumstances would occur "if and to the extent there is a measurable or demonstrable shortage of talent available," at the lower pay level.
Energy Minister Dwight Duncan immediately accepted the advice of the panel, which he set up earlier this year to fend off opposition criticism.
Now comes the hard part for Duncan, however: implementing the report.
The first test will likely come at Hydro One, the company that runs the transmission lines.
It has been without a CEO since Tom Parkinson resigned late last year in the wake of a critical report from the auditor general.
The Hydro One board will now have to go shopping for a new CEO with a pay package considerably scaled down from the $1.6 million Parkinson made in his last year.
But the bigger problem for Duncan Â– or whoever is minister after the fall provincial election Â– could come from OPG, which operates the government's fleet of nuclear, hydroelectric and coal-fired power plants.
The silence this week from OPG's University Ave. headquarters in response to the Arnett report was telling.
It is safe to conclude that the relationship between OPG and the government, already frosty, just got a few degrees colder. The market for senior executives in OPG's field Â– particularly nuclear power Â– is thin.
That's why the pay is high Â– $1.49 million for CEO James Hankinson last year, and $900,000 for Gregory Smith, senior vice-president for nuclear generation.
Hankinson's contract is up for renewal next spring, and OPG's board, impressed by the company's turnaround under his management, would reportedly like to sign him up for another term.
But if he is asked to take a pay cut of $375,000 (as suggested by the Arnett panel), he might not be inclined to stick around.
And if the CEO's pay comes down, corresponding cuts for the nuclear executives could prompt a mass exodus to the United States.
OPG's board could latch onto the "exceptional circumstances" loophole, but it would have to justify this decision to the minister of the day, who will have NDP Leader Howard Hampton breathing down his neck about "hydro fat cats."