Ottawa auditor general proceeding with LRT probe despite ‘crickets’ from Ontario

Ottawa's auditor general will look at the operations of the city's light-rail transit system as part of her 2022-2023 work plan. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg

Ottawa’s auditor general will tackle a loaded agenda next year despite major unknowns encircling Ontario’s own inquiry into one of the city’s most scrutinized projects, light rail.

The rough past few months for Ottawa LRT saw calls for accountability over the turbulent system ratcheted up, with council asking auditor general Nathalie Gougeon to investigate the original procurement of the Confederation Line in October before the province stepped in to announce its own public inquiry last month.

But provincial officials have since been tight-lipped about what the scope of their investigation will be, according to city manager Steve Kanellakos.

“Crickets. We haven’t heard anything,” he told reporters Friday.

“I have no idea what their scope and terms of reference are going to be.”

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That complicates Gougeon’s efforts to set the scope of her own audit, bearing in mind that she wants to be “prudent” about not wasting taxpayer money or transit staff resources with parallel probes.

“We want to ensure that we aren’t duplicating work,” she said during Friday’s audit committee meeting.

To begin, the AG’s audit will look at the effectiveness of LRT operations, but that could be expanded based on where the province decides to take its own investigation.

LRT is just one of several areas deemed high-risk enough for an audit by Gougeon, who officially took over the mantle locally from former AG Ken Hughes in February.

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Among the rest of her work plan approved Friday morning are probes of the city’s aggressive electric bus transition plan, its COVID-19 response, workplace harassment at the city and cybersecurity practices across the organization.

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Jean Cloutier, the chair of the committee, told reporters after the meeting on Friday that Gougeon’s first-ever work plan includes some “incredibly important audits.”

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He alluded to the importance of workplace harassment policies in the wake of damning integrity reports finding College Coun. Rick Chiarelli had engaged in sexual misconduct with employees and job applicants to his office.

“How we treat our employees — we know the background story on that and it’s important. It’s not dollars and cents, it’s more than dollars and cents, it’s the well-being of our employees,” he said.

Though auditor generals are more typically associated with pecuniary concerns or operational efficiencies, Gougeon said Friday that she determined her workload based on risks to the organization, be they financial, structural or “reputational” in nature.

The audit committee also approved Gougeon’s proposed 2022 budget on Friday, which includes two new full-time equivalent positions to bring her office up to a staff of 11.

The relatively small team — Gougeon noted her office has among the smallest percentage of the city’s total operating budget compared to AGs at other major Canadian municipalities — will have no shortage of demands in the upcoming year.

Gougeon said the city saw an explosion of calls coming in to the fraud and waste hotline in 2021, with 500 reports filed compared with the roughly 200 the line would expect to receive in a typical year.

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She didn’t disclose any recurring themes among the reports, though she did say some calls were about repeat issues and floated that the pandemic could be underlying the heightened perception of wasted resources across Ottawa.

“People might have more time on their hands during the pandemic, but that would be pure speculation,” she said.

Cloutier noted that councillors’ offices had been getting more calls in general over the pandemic, be they for parking infractions or other bylaw complaints, and seemed confident that the growing number of complaints to the fraud and waste line would be similar in nature.

“I’m certain that’s what we’re seeing with the Office of the Auditor General,” he said.

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