It’s Jim Watson’s city, so it’s Jim Watson’s secret.

So on Monday, we learned that LRT would not be ready for the November 2 deadline. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story is how shocked so many council members were acting. Sure, we may not have been expecting this, but looking at the state of a bunch of the stations, many people were skeptical.

There are a lot of issues we could talk about here–mismanagement, governance, oversight, a poorly-written contract, the value of P3s–but there is a really serious question about who knew what when. As Rideau-Rockliffe councillor Tobi Nussbaum tweeted:

Actually, this doesn’t even get to the most damning part. In her report, Joanne Chianello lays out the timeline:

Consider that an official LRT update to councillors dated Aug. 13 indicated no major concerns with the project, or as Blais put it, “there wasn’t any red flag or big oh-my-Gods in the memo. ”

And yet, Manconi said that only four days later his team, including independent experts, saw indications that made them doubt the project was on time.

Watson was told of the concerns on Aug. 20, then had a meeting with RTG and the third-party assessment team on Aug. 29.

Last Tuesday — Sept. 5 — RTG told the city that it could only meet the Nov. 2 deadline by not quite fulfilling some contract requirements, like running 12 days of full-schedule testing.

So Jim Watson knew there were issues back in August, and on September 5, the city was told the deadline wouldn’t be met. It’s hard to believe that information didn’t make it to Watson. So while a bulk of the city is rightfully complaining about the transit changes brought in for LRT, Watson knew, at the bare minimum, that the November 2 deadline was in jeopardy, and likely knew that we weren’t getting light rail before 2019.

And yet, he told no one.

Councillors entered Monday’s FEDCo meeting with no warning. Bus riders struggled with new routes without an inkling of the transit issues that were about to be unveiled.

This takes me back about nine or ten months. The city faced a budget deficit along with a $70M infrastructure deficit. Leading up to the December budget meeting, eight councillors got together and put forward a motion for a one-time levy to raise a few million to start to make a dent in the infrastructure backlog.

We spent a week or so debating it. Councillors were taking to twitter to debate each other and residents. Radio stations were interviewing City Hall watchers and local politicians. It was the news in Ottawa that week.

Then the mayor strolls into council chambers the morning of the meeting and lets everybody know that due to some accounting quirk, we suddenly had a few more million dollars to play with. It was a Christmas miracle, councillor Rick Chiarelli remarked.

Don’t get me wrong; there was nothing nefarious about the windfall, but the mayor knew about it on the Friday of the previous week, and told hardly anyone. A few councillors knew (Jean Cloutier was privy, as he got to second a motion about how to use the money), but most did not. And the public definitely did not.

After the mayor’s announcement, the councillors proposing the levy dropped it, as the Christmas miracle would cover what they wanted to do.

So, yeah, we all had a big waste of time because the mayor wanted some grand mic-drop during the council meeting.

And I’m also thinking back to the spring. The residents of Vanier felt betrayed. Without any warning, the Salvation Army was going to open up a mega-shelter on Montreal Road, going against both the zoning for the area and the Housing First approach to poverty reduction the city had adopted.

The residents had no idea this was coming, but the mayor knew. He had been informed of all the plans for quite a while (as had the local councillor, Mathieu Fleury). He just wasn’t going to share that information.

And I think back a few years ago, when residents of River Ward showed up at Mooney’s Bay to find a bunch of mature trees cut down. No one knew this was going to happen. The community hadn’t been informed.

Well, some people knew. The mayor knew (as did the local councillor, Riley Brockington), but the mayor was sworn to secrecy that we were felling trees and spending a million dollars for the benefit of a TV show. He guarded that secret jealously.

(If twice is a coincidence and three times a trend, what’s four?)

The pattern here is clear. The mayor regularly keeps secrets, especially if it will benefit him, politically. He will be reluctant to share information with the public or even other council members trying to practice good, honest city governance. As he’s made clear, Ottawa is his fiefdom, and we’re just living in it.

The LRT delay isn’t the end of the world. It’s not good, but this is a massive project, and a few delays aren’t unexpected. The issue here is one of governance. City council was not providing proper oversight. City staff were not raising alarms when problems were clearly visible, and when they finally did, that information was not getting passed on to city council. And when the mayor initially knew about trouble on the project, he hid that information from the rest of council and from the public, and for that, he deserves to be punished, politically.

In the end, he won’t. Nothing will really happen, and we’ll probably just sign a similar contract for Phase 2 and experience similar, if slightly lessened, issues in the coming four years. And the only people who will ever be published for all this municipal malpractice will be the lowly people trying to get around town using OC Transpo.

One thought on “It’s Jim Watson’s city, so it’s Jim Watson’s secret.

  1. Another of Jim Watson’s secrets was the purpose of the Byward Market stalls built last summer. He didn’t want any of the vendors to share that they were going to be occupying them because Jim Watson wanted to be the one to announce it when they cut the ribbon at opening time. This was unfair to the employees who were to work them, as their employers couldn’t even tell them they’d be working there (year round).

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