The Rotten Culture Of Ottawa City Hall Continues (2)

Why can’t city manager Wendy Stephanson find good people to fill senior positions?

Would you want to be part of the culture described below by Justice William Hourigan, the commissioner of the province’s Ottawa LRT public inquiry? That was the most damning report on a Canadian municipality in modern times.

In newsrooms, the tom-tom system works so well that if a person sneezes in one every journalist in a major organization across the country catches a cold. There are no secrets in newsrooms. Doubtless it is the same in the municipal realm.

Knowledge of the technical and ethical problems of Ottawa’s LRT, and accordingly city hall, have spread around the world.

And here is the frightening part of ethical crisis at Ottawa City Hall. Most of the people who knew about the unprincipled problems of many of the people involved in LRT are still there. A number of very senior staff executives (of the few who are still there), a number of incumbent politicians, members of former mayor Jim Watson’s staff, a few members of the transit commission (though certainly not all) and members of the city manager’s office.

So when people say that the culture at city hall is terrible, it hasn’t changed much from the words of Justice Hourigan below. Many, many people who knew of the malfeasance surrounding LRT or participated in it are still there.


And what has the new council and the new mayor done to get them out? Nothing. You don’t fix a sick culture by doing nothing. And you don’t get good people to enter an organization with a sick culture. That’s part of the reason why Ottawa City Hall operates so poorly on so many levels.

And Justice Hourigan was right. Months after those damning words, city staff withheld the information that the $1-billion purchase of so-called green e-buses would be charged with electricity generated by natural gas. Justice Hourigan’s unusually harsh words were never absorbed by vital members of Ottawa city staff.

Hourigan’s words from 2022 are below:

While human errors are understandable and expected, deliberate malfeasance is unacceptable in a public project. When participants deliberately mislead the public regarding the status of a public undertaking, they violate a fundamental obligation that underlies all public endeavours. The public rightly trusts both the government and private-sector entities to act in a manner that furthers the broader public interest. As a condition of their involvement, participants in a public project undertake to honour that obligation to the public. There are two instances in the OLRT1 project that stand out as egregious violations of the public trust.

First is the conduct of RTG and OLRT-C in providing RSA dates that they knew were entirely unrealistic. It is evident that this was done as part of a misconceived scheme to increase commercial pressure on the City. As a commercial tactic, it was a failure because the deliberate communication of unachievable dates did nothing to improve RTG’s commercial position with the City. To the contrary, this gambit only served to increase and accelerate the mistrust that was developing between the parties. More fundamentally, it represented a troubling lack of concern for the public nature of the project and the interests of the people of Ottawa. The leadership at RTG and OLRT-C seemed to have given no thought to the fact that the provision of this misinformation adversely impacted the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The people of Ottawa trusted RTG and OLRT-C to be straight with the City and tell them honestly when the system would be ready. The Commission finds that RTG and OLRT-C betrayed that trust.

Second is the conduct of senior City staff and Mayor Watson in not sharing information about trial running. This conduct prevented councillors from fulfilling their statutory duties to the people of Ottawa. Moreover, it is part of a concerning approach taken by senior City officials to control the narrative by the nondisclosure of vital information or outright misrepresentation. Worse, because the conduct was wilful and deliberate, it leads to serious concerns about the good faith of senior City staff and raises questions about where their loyalties lie. It is difficult to imagine the successful completion of any significant project while these attitudes prevail within the municipal government.

Is there any reason to believe that their conduct regarding the trial running testing results was an aberration or that transparency has improved within the City? Unfortunately, based on the City’s conduct during this Inquiry, there is not. By way of example, throughout the hearings, the City published, at taxpayers’ expense, a summary of the proceedings that was a blatant attempt to spin the testimony in a way that was favourable to the City. This appears to be unprecedented in Canadian judicial history and is part of a troubling pattern of controlling and shaping information flow to Council and the public.

In the end, the problems with the OLRT1 were a consequence of myriad factors, including the reliance on new vehicles and new relationships, a lack of integration, decisions to rush the system into service, an inadequate investment in maintenance, and several other factors, some of which were beyond the control of the parties. The result was a flawed LRT that failed to meet the needs of the people of Ottawa.

… until such time as the private and public entities involved in the OLRT1 project understand that their first obligation is to the public, there is reason to be concerned that the project will continue to suffer problems.”

Comments at the top of the post are from Ken Gray

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5 Responses

  1. Been There says:

    Let’s not forget that Stephanson is a creature of that culture. She has no experience other than Ottawa city hall. Would she even know where to look for an experienced senior position candidate?

  2. Peter Karwacki says:

    Wicked commentary Ken, like a neutron bomb, and deadly accurate.

    Hubley is still there, re elevted, I wonder how he sleeps at night.

  3. The Voter says:

    Why can’t Stephanson find good people? Heck, the situation at City Hall is so bad and so widely known that she can’t even find BAD people to fill vacant positions.

    I’d be interested to see the number of applicants they’ve had for advertised posts over the last five years with a breakdown of how many were internal and how many were external candidates. A summary of what percentage of the hires were internal would probably be informative. Are there points given in the hiring process for such things as “knowledge of the City”? That would obviously provide an advantage to internal applicants.

    We know that when the standards for the LRT couldn’t be met, the solution was to lower the standards. I wonder how often it happens down at City Hall that, when they have nobody who meets the criteria for a job, they just revise the criteria downwards so that somebody can satisfy them and they can put a bum in that seat.

  4. Luke Chadwick says:

    Re: Hubley. He seems to be virtually invisible on Council now. He has had his wings clipped and surely this is his last term.

  5. Ken Gray says:

    Luke:

    I wouldn’t be too sure of that.

    cheers

    kgray

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