LRT investigation: Mayor Watson defends receiving more information than council colleagues

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Mayor Jim Watson says he believes in ‘over-communication’, but on Thursday he had to explain why he hadn’t let his colleagues know the LRT’s performance bar had been lowered amid trial in August 2019.

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Watson testified on Day 14 of the LRT inquiry that he was following a pledge made by city staff that council would not hear about the ongoing trial until it was successfully completed.

However, he had a privileged lead on the status of the trial as his office staff were on an instant messaging chat group with Chief Transportation Officer John Manconi and City Manager Steve Kanellakos.

Com. Transit Committee Chairman Allan Hubley was also on the WhatsApp chat group, where Manconi provided regular updates.

No other board member was aware of the information shared in the chat group.

The commission’s lead co-lawyer, John Adair, asked Watson why the existence of the focus group had not surfaced during the mayor’s official interview with the commission in April. The attorney alleged that Watson and other members of the chat group worked together to keep the existence of the chat secret, a claim the mayor denied.

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« I haven’t had any WhatsApp chats with them, » Watson said.

It was by chance that the commission, during the evidence gathering process, learned that the city was using WhatsApp to share messages on LRT issues.

A city consultancy company, STV, was asked to produce LRT recordings for the commission and WhatsApp messages appeared, prompting the commission to ask the city to produce messages from the instant messaging service.

Watson defended receiving information, beyond what was available to the rest of the council, during the probationary race because he was both mayor and chairman of the finance and economic development committee, which supervised the construction of the LRT.

« There’s nothing wrong with me getting more information because I have a citywide mandate from the whole city, as opposed to a ward councilor, » Watson said.

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On top of that, committee chairs are getting more information to run meetings well, the mayor said.

But there was no finance and economic development committee between the date of substantial completion and the handover of the LRT system, Adair said.

Adair produced a TLR-related memo to the board on Aug. 16, 2019, from Manconi, which did not communicate the staff’s decision to change the criteria for running the trial on the same day.

Watson knew the criteria had changed.

When asked who suggested lowering the criteria for performing the trials from a performance rate of 98% to 96%, Watson said it was Thomas Prendergast, one of the main Manconi’s LRT advisors at STV.

This would be a third version of the story heard by the investigating commissioner, Judge William Hourigan.

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In his testimony, Manconi said the Rideau Transit Group had suggested changing the testing criteria.

And Lauch, in his own testimony, said the city talked about it.

RTG eventually achieved a test performance rate of 97%.

WhatsApp threads revealed Manconi’s frustration when problems started occurring on the LRT system in the fall of 2019.

Adair started a WhatsApp chat in October 2019 where Manconi complained that Public Transport Commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert had « destroyed us with misinformation » in a radio interview.

In the message thread, Watson suggested that Wright-Gilbert be told in a meeting with Hubley and the city clerk that if she « attacks » the staff, she will be removed from the transit commission.

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This meeting ultimately did not take place.

Watson testified Thursday that if Wright-Gilbert was approached about her comments, « she would end up becoming a martyr, and woe to her. »

(Wright-Gilbert was looking at Watson’s testimony and tweeted“He is trying to ruin my reputation. I will fight”).

After responding to Adair’s questions, Watson was asked to make further comments on the governance of the Stage 1 project.

Watson said provincial Canadian content rules for trains « hindered us from the start » because there were no skilled workers in Ottawa to maintain the vehicles.

The mayor, who is not seeking re-election in the October municipal vote, also said future plans should include a committee of council members and paid independent experts to provide a « challenge function ».

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In the morning, the Commissioner heard testimony from two consultants who worked on Stage 1.

Mario Mammolti of TUV Rheinland was an independent safety auditor hired by the city who concluded that the LRT system was safe for passenger service.

Derek Wynne of SEMP was contracted by RTG’s construction arm to provide a systems engineering « health check ».

Wynne’s track safety substantiation report in August 2019 suggested that the type of rail is too hard for the wheels of the train, which could back up vibrations into the train. In his testimony, he described it as a “lag” that does not need to shut down operations and can be mitigated with increased vehicle and track maintenance.

Wynne’s sightings could be considered prophetic in connection with the August 2021 derailment near Tunney’s Pasture Station.

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Alstom’s root cause analysis alleged that RTG’s track design did not meet the specifications expected for Citadis Spirit trains. RTG disputed Alstom’s claim, saying the tracks were built to the specifications of the project agreement.

The public can watch the SLR’s Inquiry hearings on video screens in the University of Ottawa’s Fauteux Hall, online at or on Rogers TV (channels 470 in English and 471 in French).

The final week of the hearing begins Monday with scheduled witnesses Steve Kanellakos, the city manager, and Monica Sechiari, who was the independent certifier for the Stage 1 project.

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