CBC Ottawa - The 'vitriolic' argument of a judicial inquiry into Ottawa LRT extends beyond council

LRT super consultant Brian Guest tells former mayor Bob Chiarelli inquiry will 'screw' him

By Joanne Chianello

 

For the second time in as many months, Coun. Catherine McKenney is set to move a motion at Wednesday's meeting of Ottawa city council calling for a judicial inquiry of just about everything to do with the problem-plagued Confederation Line.

On McKenney's first attempt, some procedural manoeuvring on behalf of Coun. Glen Gower — with help from the mayor's office — prevented any discussion of an inquiry into the troubled light rail transit line, and saw council ask the city's auditor general to investigate instead.

This week, unlike McKenney's last bid to force a debate, it's hard to see how council can avoid discussing a review, especially as McKenney told CBC they've received an opinion from the city clerk indicating the motion is in order.

Expect the arguments for and against to be discussed at length. 

On the pro side, a judicial inquiry would be conducted by a judge, who would be free to call witnesses to testify in public, whereas the auditor general's process is secret. Only the auditor's final report is made public, and that's vetted by city management before it's released. A judicial inquiry could investigate any potential misconduct by members of council, and other matters connected with "good government."

On the con side, a judicial inquiry would cost many millions, with some estimates putting the cost at as much as $20 million, and likely take years to complete.

A number of councillors in addition to McKenney — Diane Deans, Shawn Menard, Jeff Leiper — have voiced support for a judicial review, while Mayor Jim Watson confirmed Monday he's against it.

But battles about whether to have a judicial review are brewing outside of council, too. And one private disagreement between a former mayor and one of the city's key LRT consultants shows how divisive the issue can be — and that the politics of cleaning up a messy, expensive transit system will always be about more than the riders that rely on it. 

Consultant against judicial review, blames builder

Over his 30-year political career, Bob Chiarelli has been a regional chair, mayor and Liberal provincial cabinet minister for the Ottawa area, including serving as minister of infrastructure during the planning and procurement phases of LRT Stage 1.

Chiarelli has been musing about a possible run for mayor next year, and has been advocating publicly for a judicial review of the troubled Confederation Line. A couple days after council chose to go the auditor general route, Chiarelli mentioned in passing during a radio interview a new council could still decide to order up a judicial inquiry.

This comment appears to have sparked an email from his former aide Brian Guest. Along with his firm Boxfish Infrastructure Group, Guest has been one of the best-known consultants at Ottawa City Hall in the past decade, winning LRT consulting contracts worth millions of dollars.

"You know who you are screwing with this support for the judicial inquiry right? Someone who has always been your loyal friend and servant," Guest wrote in a personal email to Chiarelli on Oct. 16.

Guest argued a judicial inquiry would "serve no purpose other than to completely destabilize the system, the current projects under construction, and our ability to put pressure on upper levels of government for phase 3 funding."

He said the call for a judicial review was a ploy by the NDP to attack the private-public-partnership (P3) funding model, which was used to pay for the Confederation Line.

"Why are you going along with this crap?" Guest asked Chiarelli. 

In his email, Guest blamed the problems of the Confederation Line on the "failure of the private sector partner to properly design and construct and maintain the system" and they should be held to account.

"Friends are candid with friends. And this is just not cool at all," he wrote, adding Chiarelli sounds "angry" and "off brand."

That's not how Chiarelli sees it: "My feeling is a friend doesn't write this type of letter to a friend."

'Irresponsible' to sit on email: Chiarelli

Chiarelli, who released the personal email to CBC, said he was taken aback by the "vitriolic email."

"Right at the start of his email, [Guest] says a judicial inquiry would screw someone who had always been a friend, and he wanted a judicial inquiry to not go ahead because of that," said Chiarelli. "That is information that the public should have."

Chiarelli says Guest "has been positioned to act as Mayor Watson's de facto architect and overseer of the LRT project."

Both the mayor's office and Guest say the consultant has never advised the mayor on any stage of the LRT. And the city confirmed Guest, who remains an ad hoc advisor, hasn't been paid since 2020 for some work on the issues after the problematic launch in September 2019. 

Guest has had close ties to the mayor's office, including being on the transition team when Watson was first elected to the top job in 2010. Guest helped with some of the mayor's early speeches and consulted for the city on budgets — once doing so while simultaneously consulting for waste-to-energy firm Plasco as the company negotiated a contract with the city.

While Guest may not have officially advised the mayor's office on LRT, records from 2013 obtained through an access to information request by the Ottawa Citizen (and seen by CBC) show Guest sat in LRT meetings with the mayor, gave presentations for the mayor, was in contact with the mayor's chief of staff, and on at least one occasion, asked for documents on behalf of the mayor.

Guest's work for the city also raised some eyebrows in the halls of power because he worked directly with his brother-in-law Chris Swail for LRT Stage 1, and answered to Swail during the planning for LRT Stage 2.

Guest defends P3, says companies to blame

In an email exchange with CBC, Guest said he wrote to Chiarelli out of concern because the former mayor "sounded uninformed and kind of out to lunch to my ear."

He wrote  he doesn't think "a backward-looking judicial review would be helpful in fixing the issues with the LRT, which are completely caused by and are the responsibility of the Project Company" — that's Rideau Transit Group (RTG) and, presumably, the train manufacturer Alstom. 

"I believe the push for such a review is part of a long-term effort to besmirch the procurement model, which I would point out protected the taxpayers of Ottawa when the build got seriously delayed," Guest wrote.

"I am proud of all my work during the procurement process," and of the contract with Rideau Transit Group.

He said the city must use the tools in the contract to hold the private companies accountable for "crummy performance." 

Inquiry would be 'disruptive'

Asked what he meant when he suggested a judicial review would "screw" him, Guest wrote "any judicial inquiry is bound to be disruptive and take time to prepare for — which nobody would relish." 

"If one does get called, I will of course talk to them about that time in the project lifecycle, but it would be a time-consuming waste of time and money, and not serve any value in determining the technical causes for the [project company's] failure to deliver the reliability we contracted to receive."

He said he thought Chiarelli would have "some regard for the people who had worked so hard in developing this transformative project, many of whom served Bob faithfully and well as regional chair and mayor."

Both Chiarelli and Guest — two veteran players with intimate knowledge of how the city hall sausage is made — are making points we're sure to hear aired on Wednesday as councillors debate how to get to the bottom of the Confederation Line's woes.

But a glimpse into this clash between city insiders makes it clear: the debate rages outside the circle of politicians sitting around the virtual council table who have a stake in launching or nixing a judicial inquiry.

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