Pellerin: LRT investigation reveals deep chasm in trust between City of Ottawa and taxpaying public

What are we supposed to think when those tasked with building critical public infrastructure don’t bother to communicate with us through our elected representatives about serious and significant issues?

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Have you been following the stellar work of Citizen reporters Jonathan Willing, Bruce Deachman, Blair Crawford and others in investigating the disaster that was the launch of the LRT? I also.

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They provide a detailed account of everything that went wrong in time leading up to the series of unfortunate events with doors you couldn’t touch, switches that melted, and wheels that spun at right angles. Among other things.

There is something there for everyone. If you’re a fan of trains, you might wonder why a company famous the world over for the quality of its trains can’t, for some reason, run them here. I know we like to think we’re special, but really?

If you are the type of taxpayer who has struggled with the repeated and predictable failures of public-private partnerships, you will find that what is said in the investigation only reinforces your belief that it is no way to run a railroad. Or anything else, for that matter, except a large giant consulting firm that includes a Department of Endless Obfuscation and Chronic Money Transfer robust enough to go through any and all liability mechanisms on its way to the bank.

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Look: Either we treat transit like a business and maximize profits by skimping on maintenance, quality and reliability, or we treat it like a public good and pay what it costs to keep it running smoothly so it benefits the most people. There’s no reason to pay through the nose for lousy service and poor performance that leaves financially vulnerable people stuck having to rely on Uber to get to work anyway.

What really bothers me about what I’ve been reading is the secrecy and the lack of even trying to communicate. And how terrible this is for our ability to trust that those who run the city do so with our best interests in mind.

Trust is everything, in personal relationships, at work, and in public affairs. And it does not exist without full and complete honesty. There are no shortcuts or exceptions. Evasion, lies, and secrecy are a sure sign that something is wrong in a relationship.

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How are we supposed to react when a group of people tasked with building critical public infrastructure on our behalf don’t bother to reach out to us through our elected representatives when there are serious and significant issues? Just shrug? I do not think.

Not only were there “miscommunications”, but the City of Ottawa, which by the way is a public entity that belongs to all of us, tried to keep 1,600 documents (in whole or in part) secret because they contained sensitive business information.

That’s another blow against public-private partnerships, in case you feel like keeping track. Private companies can protect their business interests. Public entities have to be open and transparent. There is no case to do anything in between.

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But the worst part was hearing City Manager Steve Kanellakos defend “his decision not to report early and frequent failures to the city council during the LRT Phase 1 test run in July and August 2019, saying he thought which was the best.” wait until the tests are complete and the system passes or fails.”

Apparently, he “couldn’t trust what was going on in the making of the sausage.”

How do we get to a point where one person can keep critically important information about a multimillion-dollar public project secret because they don’t think sharing is appropriate?

I understand that worrying people unduly or burdening them with too much detail would be unproductive. But between that and keeping the widespread flaws under wraps, there’s a gap wide enough to bury all of the LRT’s problems. And it will take much more than flowers to overcome this kind of damage to public trust.

brigitte pellerin is a writer from Ottawa.

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