Mayor questioned about information shared with council at Ottawa LRT inquiry
Mayor Jim Watson faced questions about the lack of information shared with other councillors on the issues with the testing for the launch of the light rail transit project on day 14 of testimony at the public inquiry into Ottawa's LRT system.
Watson also faced questions about a private WhatsApp chat with senior staff and members of his office, and the fact there were no city committee meetings for councillors to ask questions and receive information during the trial-running period in August 2019.
Earlier this week, the commission heard about a private WhatsApp chat channel in which former OC Transpo general manager John Manconi, city manager Steve Kanellakos and senior staff in the mayor's office discussed matters relating to the project. Commission lawyer John Adair said the chats were informing Watson and transit commission chair Allan Hubley about the project, but not the committees.
The commission lawyer asking why the WhatsApp information wasn’t disclosed initially with all the documents from the city.
"The city of Ottawa discloses 550,000 documents, and all these people get interviewed, and they are all asked questions about governance and reporting and somehow, not one of them discloses the existence of the WhatsApp chat that they all recall and they all know exists. That is what we are to take from this?" Adair asked.
"That is correct," Watson said.
Adair suggested the texts were withheld because it pointed to problems on the rails.
"I am going to suggest to you that what happened is the people on that WhatsApp chat, yourself, Mr. (Allan) Hubley, Mr. Kanellakos and Mr. Manconi got together and took a decision not to disclose it intentionally because of the contents," said Adair stated.
"I do not agree with that," Watson said.
Watson saying while he did not “withhold” any information about the WhatsApp chat group, he did not feel it was important during his earlier testimony.
“No, I didn’t think it was important, it was tidbits here and there, a sentence here and there, a yes or no answer. It was not substantive whatsoever. The more substantial information came from the meetings with our suppliers and our staff,” says Watson.
He says he did not reveal the existence of the chat before because he was not asked by counsel.
“Any information that was asked for, as my lawyer said, we provided everything that was asked for,” says Watson.
Adair spent more three hours questioning the mayor about the private WhatsApp chat and why information about the issues with the trial-running period was only shared with the mayor's office, and no other members of council.
"Let me just run through for you the information you had that council did not. You knew there had been a restart that caused you concern and council did not, you knew that there had been five straight failed days right off the bat and council did not; you knew that the city had agreed on the criteria and then agreed to change it and council did not; and you knew about the daily problems of vehicle reliability and maintenance and council did not," Adair said. "I’m going to suggest to you that in fact you had very different information and council was not given the straight goods. Do you agree with that?"
"No I don't, I had additional information," Watson said. "At the end of the day, my commitment that I made at FEDCO was that information would come out at the end of the trial test period and that's exactly what happened."
Watson described the WhatsUp app chat as allowing staff to provide "quick answers" on issues with the LRT system, adding there was "nothing in it that was inappropriate, from my perspective."
The mayor said he was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the project, but staff brought information to him "as needed."
"I consider myself well briefed, but I did not dive into the details of the testing system because I didn't have that expertise to bring to the table," Watson said.
The mayor insisted he didn't receive "different information" on the issues with the light-rail transit system, "I probably received more information."
Watson told the inquiry he had concerns about the $2.1 billion system during the trial period, adding his priority was to launch a light rail transit system that is safe and reliable.
"I was very clear in that period of time leading up to trial run that my number one priority was to make sure that we had a safe and secure and reliable system. Safety trumped everything else," Watson said.
The mayor testified for five hours and 39 minutes on Thursday, with testimony wrapping up at approximately 7:40 p.m.
The inquiry will resume on Monday with testimony from city manager Steve Kanellakos.