Thread of 2019 WhatsApp texts show mayor's fixation on details during LRT woes

·8 min read
Mayor Jim Watson speaks to reporters on Sept. 14, 2019, the day Ottawa's $2.1-billion Confederation light rail line finally launched after six years of planning, construction and delays. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)
Mayor Jim Watson speaks to reporters on Sept. 14, 2019, the day Ottawa's $2.1-billion Confederation light rail line finally launched after six years of planning, construction and delays. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is "known for wanting a granular level of detail," the city's former transportation general manager John Manconi told a public inquiry last week as lawyers queried about just how involved the mayor was in the launch of the city's light rail transit system.

Watson himself told lawyers under oath in April that he was "in the crow's nest looking out 30,000 feet" and didn't get into the details of the Confederation Line.

Now, a chain of hundreds of messages sent on WhatsApp in the fall of 2019 — posted in full this week as evidence for a public inquiry investigating the LRT's many breakdowns and derailments — lives up to Manconi's description of the mayor's style, and gives an unprecedented glimpse into the city hall run by Watson.

During that especially rocky period after the light rail system opened, Watson demanded information incessantly. He gave input even on minutiae, suggesting Manconi get red-vest attendants on platforms to yell out bus routes that were implemented when LRT was struggling, or asking if shovels were on hand for snow.

The WhatsApp chat group was created a few months before he joined. At the public inquiry, lawyers have turned to it and other text messages as they delve into the important final trial run for LRT in the summer of 2019, and who might have led the push to revert to easier scoring after a failed start.

Before Watson's arrival in the chat group, city manager Steve Kanellakos, transit commission chair Coun. Allan Hubley, and staff in the mayor's office discussed crucial test scores and milestones, plus spilled blueberries on an escalator on the LRT's opening day.

After problems arose when OC Transpo made the full switch from bus to rail, Manconi messaged the group asking the mayor's chief of staff Serge Arpin and aide Mathieu Gravel "for assistance" because "the mayor texts me directly frequently."

They decided Watson should get his updates from that WhatsApp channel — one of many at the City of Ottawa, as evidenced by the odd messages meant for different threads — and Manconi added him to the chat on Oct. 23.

Thus began a barrage of messages from the mayor, often misspelled and suggesting he didn't use autocorrect, as he demanded updates about every aspect of the LRT and worried "our reputation is in tatters."

'We are drowning in message overload'

As soon as he joined the WhatsApp thread, Watson seemed fixated on the messages the OC Transpo Twitter account was sending to passengers about delays and how they didn't match what he heard directly from Manconi.

"Why is twitter account still saying delays?? It's been 20 minutes yet you tell me it was fixed in five minutes," he wrote. "CFRA is getting its info from your feed so hard to blame them when we still have old tweet up."

The mayor also joined in as Manconi worried citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert was "destroying us with misinformation" during an interview on the same private radio station. Watson suggested she be removed from the commission, and urged, "use attacks on staff as issue."

Wright-Gilbert fought back last week after that piece came to light during Watson's testimony at the public inquiry.

By Oct. 27, which was a Sunday, Watson was hearing of multiple train faults.

"This is ridiculous. I want parallel bus service ready to run all next week as a backup. We have zero credibility at this point," he wrote.

He then ordered staff to set up a meeting with Rideau Transit Group and Rideau Transit Maintenance officials at his office.

"Hold all payments to them and they are not to receive a cent until I personally give you permission," Watson continued.

Just five days after adding him, Manconi wrote, "Mr. Mayor I beg you please I am getting so many messages from you on multiple channels and your staff. I will answer everyone of them. All being actioned. We are drowning in message overload."

Watson the LRT rider

Watson persisted, checking on updates about installing non-slip coating on station stairs, and straps for passengers to grab hold of on trains.

When the mayor would ride the LRT that fall, he would pepper city executives about what he was seeing. For instance, he sent this string of messages on the morning of Nov. 11:

  • Watson at 9:35:13: I'm on eastbound at trembly and it says held.

  • Watson at 9:35:43: Anyone?

  • Watson at 9:36:46: Ok train moving again.

  • Watson at 9:41:40: Can driver shout out stops till it get fixed. Would he or she know it's not working.

  • Watson at 9:49:24: PA system now working!

  • Watson at 9:51:31: Not working.

  • Watson at 9:51:52: It just announced st Laurent and we are at Tremblay.

  • Watson at 9:54:32: Can someone. Shut off the PA system it's calling wrong station each station.

  • Watson at 10:03:44: Please reply and get PA system off. It's calling all wrong stations !!!!

  • Coun. Hubley at 10:04:18: Mr Mayor I will call in.

  • Watson at 10:04:56: Very frustrating. Especially if a blind person gets on train.

  • Manconi at 10:07:15: The system should reset at the end of the line.

On another ride, Watson told Manconi to get red-vest support staff to tell riders to remove knapsacks, because OC Transpo could fit more riders on train cars if they put them between their feet.

Watson even made several suggestions about train switches and rail yard operations that Manconi had to strike down.

Watson also wanted a "rope-style barricade" to prevent riders from holding doors when a train was departing.

Gilles Taillon/Radio-Canada
Gilles Taillon/Radio-Canada

"It is 100% a non starter. That is against all safety rules," Manconi messaged back. "You did have the option during the design and bid phase to implemt [sic] platform doors that are designed to do exactly what you are asking but that was not affordable in your financial cap."

Meanwhile, Manconi frequently asked the mayor where he was getting his information about transit problems, and had to tell him when others' Twitter posts didn't portray the train situation accurately.

'Blasting' RTG

The mayor didn't reserve his frustration to chats with top city staff.

On Nov. 22, 2019, the group heard Watson wanted a call with Peter Lauch, then-CEO of Rideau Transit Group.

"I am furious," Watson wrote. "I start the morning with a break down and end the afternoon. With another one."

Manconi then passed along Lauch's cellphone number and 12 minutes later the mayor responded, "I just blasted Peter. That tech should be fired and replaced."

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Manconi himself didn't mince words while referring to Alstom and Rideau Transit Maintenance staff on WhatsApp threads, referring to them as "clowns," "morons," and "idiots," and describing "vicious" meetings.

Throughout, Manconi promised to get the mayor information but on Dec. 7 — a Saturday —  Manconi told the mayor: "Today I am trying to have some quality time resting and doing things for myself which I haven't been able to do for months so could I please ask that we talk about all of this at our weekly?"

On Dec. 13, the mayor asked, "What happened at Cyrville and are you not alerting me at this forum anymore?"

It's clear from other message chains that Manconi continued to receive texts and direction from the mayor afterward, such as a command to stop publicizing how few trains were on the line that winter.

Texts don't amount to 'pressure'

These threads were not among the half million documents the City of Ottawa provided the public inquiry originally. The city's external lawyer Peter Wardle maintained the commission said it didn't want records from personal devices.

Wardle described the messages as transitory and disposable according to the city's records policy, and Watson said his "eyes glazed over" reading informational messages shared back and forth among city staff.

The commission's co-lead counsel John Adair, however, grilled Mayor Watson on June 30 about why he didn't mention their existence under oath during his pre-hearing interview in April 2022.

"I'm going to suggest, sir, that you knew ... those WhatsApp messages were important and you specifically chose not to disclose them, correct?"

"No," the mayor answered. "I didn't think it was that important. It was tidbits here and there. It was not substantive whatsoever. The more substantive information came from the meetings we had with our suppliers and our staff."

Andrew Lee/CBC
Andrew Lee/CBC

Manconi didn't tell the commission about the messages in his interview either. During his testimony on June 28, he told Adair he "completely forgot about the WhatsApp chats."

Adair was most concerned with the period leading up to the City of Ottawa taking over LRT and what the two men might have exchanged via text, when the mayor wasn't yet on the WhatsApp thread. Adair had seen reference to those texts but none were handed over.

"I'm going to suggest if the mayor of the city is texting you non-stop ... that's pressure on you to achieve [the LRT handover]?"

"No. No," Manconi answered. "Absolutely not."

"He has amazing energy levels and wants to know what's going on, not just in transit, even in my public works days and in my other portfolios."

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