A group of Ottawa city councillors want Ontario’s ombudsman to investigate the procurement, construction and management of the light-rail Confederation Line and the Stage 2 LRT procurement process that saw SNC-Lavalin win the contract to extend the north-south Trillium Line, despite twice failing to meet the technical threshold early on.
The councillors also want to seek “independent legal” advice on the warranties for the Confederation Line’s Alstom trains and on the maintenance contract for the east-west LRT system that the City of Ottawa signed.
“Residents are frustrated and they are angry,” said Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney.
“The people of Ottawa deserve — and are paying for — a transit system that works. They deserve reliable trains and buses that meet their daily needs. Let’s stop going back to the same contractors, again and again, hoping something will change.”
McKenney was one of seven councillors who held a press conference Tuesday to outline their LRT requests. Joining her were River Ward Coun. Riley Brockington, Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, Bay Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan and Capital Ward Coun. Shawn Menard.
(Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper was also expected to join but couldn’t make it due to illness.)
The councillors made public a draft of their letter to the ombudsman, an independent provincial officer. They said they plan to ask their colleagues to get behind it by putting in a motion to city council later this month.
The calls for more independent reviews and legal advice of Ottawa’s LRT system come as the almost six-month-old Confederation Line continues to be plagued by mechanical and electrical problems and less than 24 hours after the city released hundreds of pages of documents providing more detail about the controversial Stage 2 LRT procurement process.
While many councillors admitted they hadn’t yet read through the entire trove of released documents, they said many questions they have still require answers.
“As elected representatives, we have been frustrated in our attempts to learn more about the contracts, the technical reports and the overall management of the system due to contractual obligations to protect the vendors’ proprietary information,” the letter to the ombudsman reads.
“Elected representatives cannot carry out their duties on behalf of residents if they don’t have all of the facts.”
Stage 1 requests
On the Confederation Line specifically, the councillors — who together form a third of city council — said they want to get “independent legal advice from a local law firm not associated with SNC-Lavalin to review the terms of the warranties with Alstom.
“We want to know when we can execute the epidemic defects warranty and send these trains back for a full refund,” McKenney said.
Engineering giant SNC-Lavalin is one of three main partners in the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the consortium chosen by the city to design and build the first phase of Ottawa’s LRT. Its maintenance division, Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM), is contracted to maintain both Stages 1 and 2 of the Confederation Line.
The councillors also want to seek additional independent legal advice about that contract and “how we may consider dissolving that agreement due to failure to perform.”
Menard already tried to get information about the process of breaking that 30-year maintenance contract — and the cost of doing so — through a formal inquiry to city staff last month.
A reply released alongside the Stage 2 procurement documents late Monday said it would require “significant time and resources” for staff to provide those answers but that the city manager has begun “a thorough review of the options and implications of exercising those options” in light of the LRT’s performance to date.
That report is expected to come before city council “at the earliest opportunity” but it might be discussed in private.
Mayor Jim Watson said Monday he was meeting with lawyers that afternoon to discuss and explore the legal options available to the city on the maintenance contract. He wouldn’t say, however, whether he’s leaning towards cancelling the contract or not.
“I don’t want to do anything rash or knee-jerk to simply say that I’m doing something because we don’t want to cause more harm,” the mayor said at an unrelated press conference.
“It’s a very complicated contract. … And we have to make sure that any decision we take — whether it’s legal or even discussing the possibility of cancelling — that we’re on solid legal ground and we don’t put our taxpayers in greater risk or jeopardy by saying something that would be irresponsible.”
A statement from the mayor’s office Tuesday said Watson’s “number one priority is to secure significant improvements to RTG’s performance to improve service for our transit customers.”
Stage 2 requests
As for the Stage 2 LRT procurement, Menard said Tuesday that “the public continues to demand accountability.”
So far, the process got a thumbs-up from an independent fairness commissioner and the city’s auditor general later reviewed it and concluded city staff followed all the rules in selecting SNC-Lavalin for the Trillium Line contract.
Council, however, voted just last month to hire an outside consultant to review the Stage 2 LRT procurement process — an effort spearheaded by Menard himself.
Asked what a review by the provincial ombudsman would achieve that the approved third-party review wouldn’t, Menard suggested the ombudsman would conduct a more comprehensive investigation.
Asked whether the mayor would support the call for a probe by the ombudsman, a statement sent by Watson’s press secretary said the mayor is focused on “implementing” council’s call in February for a third-party review and for the release of more procurement documents.
“Those documents, released yesterday, confirm that council and the public can have a high degree of confidence in the Stage 2 Trillium Line Extension Project procurement process,” the statement said.
Asked what questions remain outstanding for the group of councillors following the giant procurement document dump, Menard said he was surprised that the outside law firm advising the city throughout the Stage 2 procurement process said the technical scoring criteria that it helped write was “vague.”
According to an Oct. 23, 2018, memo from Norton Rose Fulbright included in the released documents, lawyers for the firm said they identified “a lack of clarity to the grading and scoring chart contained in the Trillium Evaluation Framework” and that the city risked getting sued if it disqualified a bidder based on “somewhat unclear” scoring criteria and provisions.
“To me, it’s important that we recognize that Norton Rose Fulbright both wrote the technical scoring criteria and then said it was vague later on,” Menard said.
It’s been previously reported that Norton Rose Fulbright has represented Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin on unrelated projects and files. The city says it and the fairness commissioner cleared the firm of any conflict of interest before hiring its services.
‘Ramp down the politics’, Stittsville councillor argues
Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower sat in on the councillors’ press conference and said he agrees with some of what was said and the efforts to get “as much true information as possible.”
But he didn’t appear to like the event’s tone.
“I think we need to ramp down the politics and the rhetoric around this and make sure we’re focused on solving the immediate issues and on doing everything we can to rebuild the public’s confidence and trust so we can keep growing transit in our city,” he said.
Gower said he felt the way some of the councillors’ requests were framed were “a little bit of theatre,” citing the request to find out when the city can send the Confederation Line trains ” back for a full refund.”
“I think we’re reaching for conclusions and then working back and trying to find the answers for them,” Gower argued.
The Stittsville councillor told reporters “it won’t hurt to … ask for an ombudsman review” of the Ottawa’s LRT but said he doesn’t think it will “fundamentally make any difference.”