Mayor Watson didn't tell LRT inquiry about briefings through private chat group

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson was accused of lying under oath and hiding key information about the LRT's final trial run from members of council during his Thursday appearance at the Ottawa light rail inquiry. Throughout his more than five hours of testimony, Watson remained calm and refuted many accusations.

Testified for more than 5 hours Thursday

Mayor Jim Watson testified at the Ottawa light rail inquiry from his office at city hall Thursday for more than five hours, with many questions focusing on a WhatsApp group involving several high-ranking city officials. (Reno Patry/CBC)

Mayor Jim Watson was accused of lying under oath and hiding key information about the LRT's final trial run from members of council during his Thursday appearance at the Ottawa light rail inquiry.

Throughout his more than five hours of testimony, Watson remained calm and refuted many of the accusations.

Commission co-lead counsel John Adair immediately honed in on a WhatsApp group started in mid-July 2019 by former transportation general manager John Manconi and a number of city officials, including transit chair Allan Hubley, to keep them apprised of the progress of the LRT in the weeks leading up to its handover.

While Watson himself didn't join the chat group until October 2019, several of his staffers were in it from the start, evidently communicating with the mayor.

They would ask for near daily updates about how the trains were doing during the line's 12-day trial run. 

Commission co-lead counsel John Adair challenges Mayor Jim Watson about his assertion that he didn't receive daily briefings during the Confederaion Line trial testing. (Reno Patry/CBC)

Adair suggested Watson was even offering ideas of his own, pointing to a message Manconi sent on Aug. 1, 2019 that discussed a meeting the transportation GM had with senior teams at the consortium building the Confederation Line and train maker Alstom.

"We spoke with them about the Mayor's idea of starting Friday as a Saturday service etc and while everyone agreed it was a good idea it is not implementable," wrote Manconi.

Specifics about the LRT's performance were shared on the app, such as the fact that only four of 15 vehicles were on the track the day before the line was deemed substantially finished. The messages also discussed daily results of the trail running, information not shared with other members of council.

On Thursday, Watson defended the use of the app as an "efficient" and "reasonable" way to be kept in the loop.

But in earlier testimony under oath, given ahead of the public hearings, Watson told commission lawyer Kate McGrann that he didn't believe he had received daily updates from staff.

"Why didn't you tell her that that existed?" Adair asked Watson about the WhatsApp messages.

"First and foremost, I was never asked that," replied the mayor. "I assume if they wanted to know if there were other forms of communication I would have answered that."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Watson, is it your evidence that you knew that there was a WhatsApp chat at the time that you were interviewed, on [April] 28th — when you said you were getting briefed, and council was getting briefed, and you didn't get updates on a daily basis from staff — that you knew that this WhatsApp chat existed, but you didn't disclose it to the commission because the right question wasn't asked?" 

Watson testified that WhatsApp was "not a decision-making body" but rather a "communications tool to try to make our job more efficient, when we're asked to make decisions — probably several dozen over the course of any couple of hours — on a wide variety of issues."

Information sharing central theme at inquiry

The question of whether all council members were being properly informed of how the Confederation Line was working just before the city took control of it has been a central theme in recent days at the inquiry.

On Wednesday, the commission heard from longtime Coun. Diane Deans that it was "frustrating" to learn about the chat group — which had only been revealed at the inquiry this week — and that it was confirmation to her "that there was more to it than met the eye, that all of the information was not being shared publicly."

Watson, who characterized his leadership style as "over communicating," contended on a number of occasions that council eventually received the same information, although he may have had more details. That was the case when it came to the trial run, during which the Confederation Line was supposed to run near-perfectly for 12 consecutive days.

In fact, the mayor had substantially different information than that of the rest of council — or the public. 

The inquiry has heard that the Confederation Line failed the first three days of the trial, and when it became evident that the LRT would not easily pass, an easier scorecard from 2017 was adopted — apparently at the city's suggestion.

Manconi had drafted a memo on July 31 to tell council the trial run was being put on hold for 48 hours, but that memo was never sent. The reason? Council had been told that it would receive an update when the trial running was finished.

Mayor Jim Watson touting the Confederation Line. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

'Council was not given the straight goods'

And yet, council was sent a memo on Aug. 16, stating that "RTG has made significant progress" in the run.  The memo was sent the same day that the passing criteria had been changed, but Adair said any reasonable person reading it would assume everything was going fine.

"You knew that there had been a restart ... that caused you concern, and council did not," said the commission lawyer. "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.

"And 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?"

The mayor replied: "No, I do not." 

Watson said a memo from Aug. 23 relayed the information to council, but it did not explain what had happened behind the scenes.

The lawyer representing the City of Ottawa, Peter Wardle, pointed out that his team had earlier discussed what records to produce with the light rail commission's lawyers — the city handed over half a million — and was encouraged to "narrow" what they sent, so they didn't ask for messages from private devices.

Watson testified he had now looked over a binder-worth of messages from his staff and his "eyes glazed over" because they were mostly short phrases such as "thanks" or "look into that."

"Any issue of substance would not go in a WhatsApp," said the mayor.

The inquiry is slated to resume Monday morning with testimony from city manager Steve Kanellakos.

With files from Kate Porter