Ottawa’s top staffer and the city’s mayor are at odds over who was making the decisions with regards to the city’s light rail transit system and what to tell city council.

In the final week of the public inquiry into Ottawa’s LRT, City Manager Steve Kanellakos was grilled over a decision not to tell council about the train's repeated failures during trial running.  

“I’m confused a little bit because in fact the system did fail the testing, and it only passed because the criteria were lowered and council wasn’t told about that,” co-lead counsel for the Commission, John Adair said. 

Kanellakos refutes the implications that changing testing criteria, during the trial running phase, was inappropriate – or that city council should have been informed. 

“It was fully within the parameters and the ability of the experts to make modifications to those criteria, Kanellakos said. 

Adair repeatedly pressed Kanellakos on his decision not to update council about testing during the trial running period, but Kanellakos argues any memos to staff during that period were not updates, nor should city council have expected any information prior to the completion of testing; something Kanellakos says he made clear prior to trial running.

“I informed council in terms of how and when I would update them and I never received a change of direction as I said earlier,” Kanellakos continued. “I was clear what I was going to do and I did what I was going to do. There was never anything from them that was contrary or changed what I was going to do.”

In previous testimony, Councillor Diane Deans said the city “should not be hiding that kind of information from public view.”

Speaking to CTV Morning Live, Monday, City Councillor and mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney was also critical of the decision not to report testing failures during trial running.

“It’s disappointing really, it means we’re not all given the information that we need to make the decisions on the behalf of residents,” they said.

Some of Steve Kanellakos’ testimony Monday also directly contradicted earlier testimony from Mayor Jim Watson, particularly surrounding the role of those in a controversial WhatsApp chat.

Last week, commission lawyers grilled Watson and former OC Transpo general manager John Manconi about a private WhatsApp chat city officials used to discuss the project. The inquiry heard Manconi, staff in the mayor's office, Kanellakos and Transit Commission Chair Allan Hubley were on the chat.

Thursday, Watson testified the WhatsApp chat allowed staff to provide “quick answers” on issues with the LRT system but contested he did not withhold information from city council.

Monday, Adair pressed Kanellakos on whether the creation of the text group influenced who was making decisions.

“I’m suggesting that the people on that group are the same as the people who are making decisions. Do you agree with that,” Adair asked.

“No,” Kanellakos replied.

“That’s precisely what Mayor Watson said, do you disagree with him?” Adair countered.

“Yes.”

Kanellakos insisted throughout his testimony Monday that the decisions of what council would be informed of, and when, were his alone.

“We were under pressure, it was an embarrassment, but it’s not going to change and influence my judgement in terms of what we needed to do,” Kanellakos responded in reference to repeated launch delays.

Kanellakos also testified Monday that the city chose not to launch with partial service due to cost, complexity and a desire to launch a full service system as promised.

During his formal interview with the commission on April 28, Kanellakos conceded "cracks in the relationship" between the city and Rideau Transit Group began to form after the Rideau Street sinkhole in 2016.

Kanellakos said there was a "lot of collaboration" with RTG to repair the sinkhole, but once the impacts on the construction schedule started arising, "that's when the first kind of, I'd say, cracks in the relationship appeared with respect to the delays that were being put forward."

The city manager was also asked about the city's decision not to proceed with a soft launch of the LRT system in 2019.

"It goes back to what was promised in the contract," Kanellakos testified. "And you're probably referring to the notion that they floated a partial kind of launch, but they wanted to partial launch with full payment, and I certainly wasn't on for that."

Kanellakos added "it still boggles my mind to this day" that the system couldn't launch with 13 trains.

The commission learned last week the option of a soft or partial launch of the system was "shut down vehemently."

Commissioner Justice William Hourigan and the public inquiry are looking into Stage 1 of Ottawa's Light Rail Transit System, including the commercial and technical circumstances that led to breakdowns and two derailments.

Hourigan must submit a final report with conclusions and any recommendations on or before Aug. 31. Hourigan may request an extension until the end of November.

Here is the LRT inquiry witness schedule for the remainder of this week:

DAY 16 – July 5

  • Larry Gaul (STV Inc.) – Morning
  • Troy Charter (City of Ottawa) – Afternoon

DAY 17 – July 6

  • Richard France (Alstom Transport Canada Inc.) – Morning
  • Brandon Richards (City of Ottawa) – Afternoon

DAY 18 – July 7

  • Mario Guerra (Rideau Transit Management) – Morning
  • Nicolas Truchon (Rideau Transit Group) – Afternoon