Pellerin: LRT inquiry reveals a deep chasm in trust between the City of Ottawa and the tax-paying public

What are we supposed to think when those tasked with building critical public infrastructure don’t bother to communicate with us via our elected representatives about serious and significant problems?

Steve Kanellakos, city manager, talks with Mayor Jim Watson before the start of an in-camera Ottawa Council meeting back in 2020. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

Have you been following the stellar work of Citizen reporters Jonathan Willing, Bruce Deachman, Blair Crawford and others on the inquiry into the mess that was the LRT launch? Me, too.

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They provide a blow-by-blow account of all that went wrong in the time leading up to the series of unfortunate events featuring doors you couldn’t touch, switches that melted and wheels that turned square. Among other things.

There’s something in there for everyone. If you’re a rail geek, you get to wonder why a company famous all over the world for the quality of its trains cannot, for some reason, make them work here. I know we like to think we’re special, but really?

If you’re the kind of taxpayer who’s had it with the repeated and predictable failings of public-private partnerships, you’re going to find that what’s being said at the inquiry only reinforces your belief that it’s no way to run a railroad. Or anything else, for that matter, except a big giant consulting firm that includes a Department of Endless Obfuscation and Chronic Buck-Passing robust enough to get through any and all accountability mechanisms on its way to the bank.

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  1. ‘The mayor is loosing his mind’ — Trove of WhatsApp messages reveals city’s LRT angst

  2. LRT inquiry: Commissioner shoots down requests to make documents secret

Look: Either we treat transit as a business and maximize profits by skimping on maintenance, quality and reliability, or we treat it as a public good and pay what it costs to run it properly so it benefits the greatest number of people. There is no case to be made for paying through the nose to get lousy service and worse performance that leaves economically vulnerable people stuck having to rely on Uber to get to work anyway.

What really bothers me in what I’ve been reading is the secrecy and failure to even try to communicate. And how terrible this is for our ability to trust that those who run the city are doing it with our best interests in mind.

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Trust is everything, in personal relationships, at work and in public affairs. And it does not exist without full and complete honesty. There are no shortcuts and no exceptions. Evasions, lies and secrecy are a sure sign that something’s not right in a relationship.

How are we supposed to react when a group of people tasked with building critical public infrastructure on our behalf doesn’t bother to communicate with us via our elected representatives when there are serious and significant problems? Just shrug it off? I don’t think so.

Not only were there “poor communications,” but the City of Ottawa, which by the way is a public entity that belongs to all of us, tried to keep 1,600 documents (complete or partial) secret because they contained sensitive commercial information.

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That’s another stroke against public-private partnerships, in case you felt like keeping track. Private businesses get to protect their commercial interests. Public entities have to be open and transparent. There is no case to be made for anything in between.

But the worst was to hear the city manager, Steve Kanellakos, defend “his decision to not inform city council of the early and frequent failures during the trial running of Phase 1 of the LRT in July and August of 2019, saying he thought it best to wait until testing was completed and the system had either passed or failed.”

Apparently he “couldn’t rely on what was happening in the making of the sausage.”

How did we get to a point where one person gets to keep critically important information about a multi-billion-dollar public project secret because he doesn’t think sharing is appropriate?

I get that worrying people unduly or burdening them with way too many details would be unproductive. But between that and keeping widespread failures secret, there is a gap wide enough to bury all the LRT’s many troubles. And it’s going to take a lot more than flowers to move past this kind of damage to the public trust.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer.

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