Former transit boss grilled on political pressure, favours and private chats at LRT inquiry
Former OC Transpo general manager John Manconi faced intense questioning as he testified at a public hearing in the Ottawa Light Rail Transit Commission.
Commission counsel John Adair questioned Manconi about pressure to launch the system after several missed deadlines. Political pressure has been a theme of the inquiry since day one, when former rail director John Jensen testified there was pressure coming from the mayor and council in the early days.
Manconi insisted there was none. “There was a lot of asks, and a lot of disappointments with missed deadlines, a lot of people that were anxious, but there was no political pressure to get it done by a certain date,” he said, adding everyone in Ottawa wanted the system to be ready.
Adair then walked Manconi through a series of emails that referenced numerous and chronic problems.
A December 2018 email from John Manconi says, “The situation is very serious,” and payments from lenders were at risk of being withheld.
In April 2019, another email from Larry Gaul, part of the independent assessment team to OC Transpo officials saying, "this past week has been an eye opener...the number of vehicles and system failures is very concerning.”
Another member of the assessment team, Tom Prendergast wrote a similar email in June.
“I share your concerns about the readiness of everyone as they move towards revenue service,” he wrote.
Those problems continued during testing. “The results were no where near the threshold that had been set.”
Manconi responding, “They had difficult days.”
The commission heard that during the day before substantial completion, only four of the 15 trains ran on the line.
The city accepted the Confederation Line even though they did not have the full 34 vehicles, which was part of the project agreement.
“Take my word for it, you didn’t have 34 trains,” Adair said.
Within weeks of the launch of LRT, problems began to arise with doors, onboard computer systems and more.
But counsel suggested there was much more on the line.
“RTG was putting pressure on you to do them favours and score things differently, right?” Adair asked.
“No,” Manconi said flatly.
“They were not asking you for favours?” Adair said.
“They were not asking me to score differently,” said Manconi.
“Were they asking the city to score differently?” Adair asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Manconi replied.
“Did you ever say anything to RTG along the lines of, ‘What’s in it for me if I get you a pass?’” Adair asked.
“I don’t recall making that statement,” Manconi said. “I would not have said that. I don’t recall saying that.”
MEMO ABOUT TESTING PAUSE WITHHELD
Counsel also questioned Manconi about a memo he had drafted, but did not send, regarding issues during the trial running period in the summer of 2019.
Manconi said he thought the memo would be helpful, but testified that city manager Steve Kanellakos told him not to send it to the mayor and city council.
“Mr. Kanellakos, being the city manager and my boss, reminded me of what we told council, and that’s what we decided to do was not issue the memo,” he said.
Transit officials had said in 2019 there would not be regular updates about the trail run, and that they would only speak to it after it was finished.
Adair then brought up a private WhatsApp chat channel in which Manconi and other city officials discussed matters relating to the project, saying the chats were informing Mayor Jim Watson—the chair of the finance and economic development committee (FEDCo)—and transit commission chair Allan Hubley, but not the committees as a whole.
“Why are the only people deserving of or entitled to information the chair of the transit commission and the chair of FEDCo, and not FEDCo and the transit commission?” Adair asked.
After Manconi testified that he could not recall whether Hubley, Watson or Kanellakos asked for the WhatsApp group, but that they had asked for regular updates, Adair questioned the use of the app, which was outside the usual mechanisms of city council.
“I think we can agree without much difficulty your private WhatsApp chat group was not available to council or the public,” Adair said.
“Agreed,” Manconi replied.
“And if council and the public wanted to know what information the chair of FEDCo had available, they would not be able to do that, because they wouldn’t have the WhatsApp chat,” Adair said.
“Correct,” said Manconi.
“And if they wanted to know what information the chair of the transit commission had available to him, they wouldn’t be able to do that, because they wouldn’t have the WhatsApp group,” Adair went on.
“Correct,” Manconi repeated.
A list of high-profile officials is testifying this week. Former RTG CEO Peter Lauch is scheduled to testify Wednesday, followed by panel that includes Couns. Allan Hubley, Catherine McKenney and Diane Deans and citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert. Mayor Jim Watson is scheduled to testify Thursday.
The inquiry, led by Justice William Hourigan, has a mandate to investigate the commercial and technical circumstances that led to Stage 1 breakdowns and derailments. It is looking at the decisions and actions that were taken in determining the procurement approach the city selected for Stage 1, the selection of Rideau Transit Group to build the system and the awarding of the contract.