LRT public inquiry demands Ottawa council's WhatsApp, text messages

Ottawa city councillors, the mayor, and high-level staffers have been ordered to produce messages they sent via platforms such as cellphone text and WhatsApp, among others, by the end of the day.

City of Ottawa had already sent public inquiry lawyers a half million documents

Mayor Jim Watson and former transportation general manager John Manconi speak with reporters on Sept. 14, 2019, the day Ottawa's $2.1 billion Confederation light rail line finally launched. A public inquiry now wants to see all text and other messages sent between the two, or among city councillors and top city staffers involved in the Confederation Line. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, city councillors and high-level staffers have been ordered to produce messages they sent via platforms such as cellphone text and WhatsApp by the end of the day.

Those messages appear not to have been included among the half million documents the City of Ottawa had earlier handed over to a public inquiry investigating its light rail system.

But city hall has been working in recent days to hand over those messages after all, once a commission lawyer saw one WhatsApp chat that referred to "non-stop" texting between Mayor Jim Watson and former OC Transpo head John Manconi, CBC News has learned.

The Ottawa Light Rail Commission hits the half-way mark Friday of four weeks of public hearings in which major players past and present are being questioned by legal counsel. Next week, Watson, Manconi, and some city councillors will all testify under oath.

On Thursday, the commission posted an arbitrator's decision to its website about messages that key city players had sent on the WhatsApp platform that the City of Ottawa's external lawyers had sought to have redacted. It involved two chains of messages that city consultant STV Inc. intended to introduce as evidence.

The arbitrator decided messages that didn't involve medical information or personal phone numbers could be made public.

For instance, on Oct. 27, 2019, during a period when riders were experiencing daily delays, Manconi sent rail director Michael Morgan a message that said, "Ok Michael you need to connect with me when you can today. Major developments and also the mayor has ordered zero money goes to RTG or RTM. The tap is officially off and the mayor has full authority."

Summons issued

Beyond the messages released Thursday, it would appear the WhatsApp chains alerted commission lawyers to wider messages they had not seen.

According to an email obtained by CBC News, the City of Ottawa employee organizing its documentation for the public inquiry told members of council and other city officials that the light rail commission had issued a summons to the City of Ottawa in recent days.

Leslie Donnelly relayed that the commission ordered: "Please produce all text, WhatsApp, and similar (i.e., any electronic messaging platform) messages for the period June 1, 2019 through December 31, 2020 among any two or more of Mr. Holder, Mr. Morgan, Mr. Charter, Mr. Manconi, Mr. Kanellakos, the Mayor, any member of Council, and Mr. Cripps. I note in this regard the reference in the WhatsApp chat messages to "nonstop" texting between Mr. Manconi and the Mayor, which messages have not been produced (to the best of my knowledge)."

The commission lawyers wanted especially to see messages involving the mayor, Manconi or city manager Steve Kanellakos during the period that roughly begins when the mayor asked many LRT-related executives to his office in June 2019 and said the train would likely open by September, through to the problem-plagued first New Year's Eve when two trains lost power.

That period of trial run testing, leading up to the LRT's launch in September 2019, has been the focus of testimony at the public inquiry for the last two days.

During the inquiry, many documents that were not originally meant for public view, including e-mails, have been made public as evidence as the commission seeks to explain the technical and commercial issues that led to all of Ottawa's light rail woes.


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.