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LRT inquiry: Mayor Watson defends receiving more info than council colleagues

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Mayor Jim Watson says he believes in “over communicating,” but on Thursday he had to explain why he didn’t let colleagues know that the bar for measuring LRT performance was lowered in the middle of trial running in August 2019.

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Watson testified on Day 14 of the LRT inquiry that he was following a commitment made by city staff that council wouldn’t hear about the trial running until it was successfully complete.

However, he had an inside track on the status of trial running since his office staff were on an instant message chat group with transportation general manager John Manconi and city manager Steve Kanellakos.

Coun. Allan Hubley, the chair of the transit commission, was also on the WhatsApp chat group, where Manconi provided regular updates.

No other council member was privy to the information shared in the chat group.

Commission co-lead counsel John Adair pressed Watson on why the existence of the chat group didn’t come up during the mayor’s formal interview with the commission in April. The lawyer alleged Watson and other members of the chat group worked together to keep the existence of the chat secret, a claim that the mayor denied.

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“I had no discussion about WhatsApp with them,” Watson said.

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

A city consultant firm, STV, was asked to produce LRT records for the commission and WhatsApp messages popped up, prompting the commission to ask the city to produce messages from the instant message service.

Watson defended receiving information, over and above what was available to the rest of council, during trial running because he was both mayor and chair of the finance and economic development committee, which had oversight of LRT construction.

“There’s nothing wrong with me getting more information because I have a citywide mandate from across the city as opposed to a ward councillor,” Watson said.

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On top of that, committee chairs receive more information to properly run meetings, the mayor said.

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

Adair produced an LRT-related memo to council on Aug. 16, 2019, from Manconi that didn’t communicate a staff decision to change the trial running criteria that same day.

Watson knew the criteria changed.

Asked who suggested lowering the trial running criteria from a performance rate of 98 per cent to 96 per cent, Watson said it was Thomas Prendergast, one of Manconi’s key LRT advisors at the firm STV.

That would be a third version of the story heard by the inquiry commissioner, Justice William Hourigan.

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In his testimony, Manconi said the Rideau Transit Group suggested changing the trial running criteria.

And Lauch in his own testimony said the city brought it up.

RTG ended up achieving a trial run performance rate of 97 per cent.

The WhatsApp message threads have revealed Manconi’s frustration when problems started happening on the LRT system in fall 2019.

Adair brought up a WhatsApp chat in October 2019 where Manconi was complaining about citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert allegedly “destroying us with misinformation” in a radio interview.

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

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That meeting didn’t end up happening.

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

(Wright-Gilbert was watching Watson’s testimony and tweeted, “He is attempting to ruin my good name. I will fight back”).

At the end of answering Adair’s questions, Watson was invited to make other observations about the Stage 1 project governance.

Watson said the provincially mandated Canadian content rules for the trains “hobbled us from the beginning,” since there weren’t skilled workers in Ottawa to service the vehicles.

The mayor, who isn’t seeking re-election in the October municipal vote, also said future projects 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 evidence from two consultants who worked on Stage 1.

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

Derek Wynne of SEMP was contracted by RTG’s construction arm to provide a system engineering “health check.”

Wynne’s track safety justification report in August 2019 suggested that the type of rail is too hard for the train wheels, potentially forcing vibrations back into the train. In his testimony, he described it as a “mismatch” that doesn’t need to stop operations and one that can be mitigated through increased vehicle and track maintenance.

Wynne’s observations could be viewed as prophetic through the frame of the August 2021 derailment near Tunney’s Pasture Station.

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Alstom’s root-cause analysis alleged RTG’s track design didn’t meet its expected specifications for the Citadis Spirit trains. RTG has disputed Alstom’s claim, saying the tracks were built to the specifications of the project agreement.

The public can watch LRT inquiry hearings on video screens set up at Fauteux Hall at the University of Ottawa, online at www.ottawalrtpublicinquiry.ca 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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twitter.com/JonathanWilling

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