Ottawa residents seek accountability, apologies over LRT system failures

The Ottawa Light Rail Transit (LRT) Commission logo is seen in Ottawa, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. The final light rail transit report is leaving residents frustrated and itching for those involved to own up to their actions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

The scathing report into years of problems with Ottawa’s $2.1-billion light rail system has prompted residents to call on those involved to own up to their actions — but the onus will now be on newly elected mayor Mark Sutcliffe to answer to the public.

Just a few weeks into his new job, Sutcliffe is fielding questions about how to repair citizens’ trust in the city after a public inquiry into the LRT project described a pattern of deliberate malfeasance by its senior officials.

Public policy expert Lori Turnbull says it’s his responsibility to face those questions head-on.

“Even though he was not the mayor at the time he is the one who holds the office now, and he is the person to answer questions,” said Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s school of public administration.

Sutcliffe told reporters on Wednesday that he will implementing the recommendations provided in the inquiry’s final report and will be working towards rebuilding public trust.

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“It’s all going to come down to the service that people receive and that’s what’s going to restore their confidence,” he said.

Most of the decision-makers involved in the first phase of the LRT project are out of the picture, but Ottawa residents have been calling for the resignation of city councillor Allan Hubley on social media.

The representative for Kanata South, who was the chair of the city’s transit commission during his last term, is under scrutiny for his involvement in a WhatsApp group chat with former mayor Jim Watson and senior city staff. In the chat, they discussed problems with the LRT project that were not disclosed to the rest of the council.

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Hubley is the last of them to remain in office. Watson decided not to run in the recent election, city manager Steve Kanellakos resigned on Monday two days before the report’s release and the former head of OC Transpo, John Manconi, retired in 2021.

Hubley did not respond to a request for comment, but told a local radio station this week that he does not plan to be the transit commission chairman for this council term.

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters that the city did a “terrible job” overseeing the system. He said that the people who were working on the project “hightailed out of there” because they knew the system was a disaster.

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“It was just absolute shambles and stunk to high heaven,” said Ford.

Former citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert said that when community group Horizon Ottawa began circulating a petition calling for Hubley’s resignation, she immediately signed it.

Wright-Gilbert has been outspoken throughout her term since 2019 about the lack of transparency from city officials and the Rideau Transit Group.

The report was exactly what she hoped for, she said. But at the same time, she questioned how those involved in the failures it outlined would ultimately be held responsible. “It rings hollow, because who do we have left to hold accountable?”

Those who testified in front of the LRT inquiry were offered immunity from being prosecuted for anything they said.

That leaves those currently in power fielding calls for resignations and apologies, Turnbull suggested.

Click to play video: 'Is Ottawa’s light-rail transit system ‘world class’?'
Is Ottawa’s light-rail transit system ‘world class’?

“It’s up to (Sutcliffe) to work on building public confidence. It’s up to him to tell the people what happened and why it won’t happen again, because people look to the leaders at the time, regardless of who may have made decisions in the past,” said Turnbull, who has conducted research on public engagement.

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Turnbull said it will be difficult to hold those who are out of office responsible. She added that the public will be closely watching what the new council says and does on the LRT, and its response will set the tone on public trust.

Former Ottawa councillor Mathieu Fleury says now is the time for everyone who was involved — including the Rideau Transit Group — to step up and offer an explanation for their actions.

Though several LRT stations were built in his ward of Rideau-Vanier, Fleury said that when he chased for answers he received none.

“I don’t think there would have been a launch if council knew that the testing and commissioning wasn’t aligned with the what was presented to council in the first place,” he said.

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