A divided Ottawa city council called for an investigation into what’s gone wrong with the city’s tumultuous light-rail transit system at its meeting Wednesday, choosing a limited yet cost-effective request to the auditor general over a wide-reaching and public judicial inquiry.
The meeting had its fair share of flare ups and accusations of dirty politics, with council at times split directly in half over the best way to restore transit rider confidence and move forward with the city’s LRT system.
Council passed a motion with a vote of 14-9 asking the city’s new auditor general, Nathalie Gougeon, to investigate the procurement and maintenance procedures involved in the Confederation Line LRT, reaching back nearly a decade to when the system was first commissioned.
Responding to the motion at Wednesday’s meeting, Gougeon noted that as an independent officer she has the right to decline such a request, but she also noted that since Ottawa’s LRT system is a “top risk” project, it probably would have been on her 2022 work plan in some form.
The auditor general investigation was suggested by Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower as a replacement motion for Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney’s proposal for a judicial inquiry into the system by an Ontario Superior Court Justice.
Both tools are ostensibly mechanisms available to city council to seek accountability and transparency on the Confederation Line LRT, though the scope, cost, timelines and powers of the respective investigators differ significantly.
While the proposed auditor general inquiry would have the power to interview individuals under oath as part of the investigation, it would not have the power to examine city council decisions or the roles specific councillors or the mayor might have played in any potential breach of trust during the procurement process.
Testimonies in a judicial inquiry are conducted in an open forum, while the interviews in an AG report are not done publicly, even though final reports are made widely available in both instances.
One upside to the AG probe would be the ability to grant some reticent witnesses anonymity. Other benefits are a relative “economic” cost compared to a multimillion-dollar judicial inquiry, Gougeon offered, and the opportunity to deliver the report in a phased and timely manner.
An earlier inquiry into the procurement of Stage 2 LRT from Ottawa’s previous auditor general found that staff followed the rules set out by council, but said additional transparency is needed.
Gower said his motion offered a “way more sensible, way more pragmatic” path to LRT accountability.
But for supporters of McKenney’s motion, the auditor general option does not go far enough.
The deeper scope of a judicial inquiry, which would seek to hold council itself to account for its role in the LRT procurement, is worth the higher costs and longer wait, some councillors argued.
“We need an investigation that brings sunlight into a process that has been characterized by a lack of transparency and a lack of timely information,” Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King said.
While the judicial inquiry proposal was public three weeks in advance of Wednesday’s meeting, the replacement auditor general tact was walked on at council just as debate was supposed to begin on McKenney’s motion.
The lack of public debate and councillor consultation on the alternative frustrated some councillors.
“If the goal is to re-establish trust, then how do you think it looks to torpedo a judicial inquiry motion in such a cynical way?,” McKenney asked.
Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans went as far as accusing those who voted in favour of the auditor general proposal of covering up council’s role in the project.
“What are you hiding? Why wouldn’t you want to get to the bottom of this mess?,” she asked her colleagues. Deans was also a member of city council when the initial Confederation Line project was approved.
When asked by Global News about the accusations of a cover-up in a press conference after the meeting, Mayor Jim Watson denied the allegations.
“I disagree with that. I believe everyone acted in good faith,” he said of the Stage 1 LRT procurement.
Watson told reporters the auditor general investigation was a “good compromise” to address the “angst and frustration” of transit riders and taxpayers in the city who feel let down by the LRT system.
The 14-9 vote to ask the auditor general to investigate Confederation Line LRT fell as follows:
- Orléans Coun. Matt Luloff – Yes
- Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley – Yes
- Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King – No
- Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier – Yes (seconder)
- River Coun. Riley Brockington – Yes
- Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli – Yes
- Beacon Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney – Yes
- Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower – Yes (mover)
- Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans – No
- Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt – Yes
- West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chatiry – Yes
- Capital Coun. Shawn Menard – No
- College Coun. Rick Chiarelli – No
- Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney – No
- Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder – Yes
- Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper – No
- Innes Coun. Laura Dudas – Yes
- Bay Coun. Theresa Kavanagh – No
- Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan – No
- Cumberland Coun. Catherine Kitts – Yes
- Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury – No
- Osgoode Coun. George Darouze – Yes
- Mayor Jim Watson – Yes
Watson and Deans were also part of a fiery exchange earlier in the council meeting over a procedural debate.
The video below is coded to start at the time of the conflict, roughly four hours into Wednesday’s day-long meeting:
Watson had ruled that Gower’s call for an auditor general probe amounted to a replacement motion for McKenney’s and said that it would be debated first.
Deans raised a point of order and started to ask the city clerk what the order of consideration should be, reading out procedural bylaws that suggested McKenney’s motion should come first.
Watson then interrupted Deans to say he had ruled already on the order the motions would be taken.
“You can’t rule, you didn’t have the right to rule. I asked a question … to the clerk. You can’t just rule,” she said in response, with Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper chiming in to say he was challenging the mayor’s ruling.
Watson then called for a vote to see whether his ruling was sustained and denied Menard’s request to hear from the clerk, explaining a vote had already been called.
“Why do we have a clerk? We need to know whether our clerk agrees with this or not. Are we just going to vote on something none of us even really understand?,” McKenney said.
City staff, Menard and Deans jumped in then to debate about the order of the question and the ruling.
Deans’ microphone was then cut off as she was demanding an answer to her question and Watson returned to calling for a vote.
“What a joke,” Menard said, as other councillors expressed their frustrations that Deans was cut off.
— Carol Anne Meehan (@MeehanCarolAnne) October 13, 2021
Watson’s ruling was sustained with an even vote of 11-11, with staff saying a tie goes to the mayor.
Commenting on the heated moment to reporters, Watson acknowledged the LRT debate was an “emotional issue” but said multiple councillors talking at once wasn’t productive.
“My job as mayor is to maintain order,” he said.
Watson told reporters it was the deputy clerk who silenced Deans’ microphone, adding, “and I support that.”
On Thursday, Watson marked a slight change in tone when he tweeted that he reached out to Deans to apologize to her, saying it was “the wrong call on his part.”
Earlier today, I wrote to Councillor Deans to apologize for her microphone being cut off while in the midst of an important debate yesterday. It was the wrong call on my part and I take full responsibility.
— Jim Watson (@JimWatsonOttawa) October 14, 2021
A number of other LRT motions were passed at Wednesday’s council meeting as the system remains down for a fourth week since its latest derailment.
Assuming the LRT system is up and running in six weeks’ time, December will see OC Transpo and Para Transpo users pay no fares to ride the train or buses thanks to a motion from Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley.
The chair of the transit commission acknowledged the move, which will be funded by reallocating planned payments from RTG, will not fix issues on the system but is intended as a “gesture” to frustrated bus and train riders.
Another motion will see city staff explore the consequences and risks associated with ending the city’s 30-year maintenance contract with RTG and potentially bringing that work in-house.
Council also approved a motion passed at last week’s finance committee to file a notice of dispute against RTG, ramping up legal pressures against the construction consortium.
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