Judicial inquiry into Ottawa LRT could be costly, legal staff warn

Ottawa city councillors are being cautioned that a judicial inquiry into the city’s turbulent light-rail transit system could be a significant drain on resources and is only one option to get answers on the project’s shortcomings as council prepares to consider calling for one next week.

City solicitor David White sent out a memo in advance of Wednesday’s city council meeting outlining what a judicial inquiry into the Confederation Line LRT might involve, given fervent calls for accountability into the troublesome system after it derailed twice in the span of six weeks and remains out of service heading into the long weekend.

Councillors Catherine McKenney and Carol Anne Meehan have a motion at the Oct. 13 meeting of city council calling for a judicial inquiry into the $2.1-billion Confederation Line LRT.

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A judicial inquiry involves asking a judge from the Superior Court of Justice to probe a matter of public interest, such as a potential breach of contract or misconduct in government. It would involve collecting pertinent documents and public hearings for key individuals involved in the inquiry, with a final report outlining the judge’s findings.

But in White’s memo, he offers words of warning that a judicial inquiry might not get council the answers it wants and could end up being a significant drain on municipal resources.

The city foots the bill for any potential judicial inquiry, costs for which can be in the millions of dollars depending on the scope of the work. White outlines a series of recent and running judicial inquiry costs in his memo, from as low as $3.8 million to nearly $20 million.

“The municipality pays for all costs related to a judicial inquiry, even though it has no control over the process or scope once the inquiry is established,” White writes.

Those dollar figures also relate only to the direct cost, not the staff hours required to retrieve documents and the losses in productivity elsewhere in the organization because of diverted attention, the city solicitor noted.

There is no set timeline for when a judicial inquiry would conclude, White noted. He pointed to the inquiry into the Red Hill Valley Parkway in Hamilton launched in 2019 that has yet to call any witnesses.

Citing legal reports in the Hamilton inquiry, White wrote that judicial inquiries are suited for “complex, large scale investigations,” but he also suggested they are not the only option to elicit accountability around Ottawa’s LRT system.

He said that an investigation from the auditor general, integrity commissioner or the provincial ombudsman could produce “potentially more targeted” looks into any possible misconduct in the project, though he did not offer suggestions on which of these options would be better suited for the LRT probe.

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“The significant costs and commitment of time and resources associated with a judicial inquiry are factors that warrant careful consideration,” White wrote in conclusion.

McKenney shot back against the suggestions in the memo, tweeting Thursday that residents deserve a judicial inquiry to understand how their tax dollars were spent.

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