Seven questions about the public inquiry into Ottawa’s LRT system

OTTAWA — The wheels are now in motion for a public inquiry into Ottawa’s beleaguered light rail transit system.

Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney announced Wednesday that the Progressive Conservative government cabinet approved launching a public inquiry into the LRT, saying, “The issues plaguing Stage 2 of the Ottawa LRT have been unacceptable and disappointing.”

Mulroney says the scope of the inquiry and its terms of reference will be established in the coming weeks.

The Ontario government called a public inquiry into the LRT system after council rejected a motion from coun. Catherine McKenney to call a judicial inquiry into the project. Instead, council asked the city’s auditor general to probe the LRT contract and system.

CTV News Ottawa looks at questions surrounding the public inquiry, what Ottawa residents can expect and what will happen with the auditor general’s investigation.

What is a public inquiry?

“A public inquiry is any sort of inquiry set up by the Government of Ontario to inquire into facts or matters and make recommendations regarding those facts or matters,” said Paul Daly, Chair in Administrative Law and Government at the University of Ottawa. Daly spoke with Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron.

“There’s something called the Public Inquiries Act, and that provides for the establishment of a public inquiry when the government deems it’s appropriate. The government can set out the terms of references.”

City solicitor David White provided an overview of the public inquiry to council this week.  White says the Public Inquiries Act gives the provincial cabinet broad power to establish a public inquiry, including defining the commission membership and its mandate.

  • (A) Appoint one or more persons as commissioners and, if more than one commissioner is appointed, assign roles and responsibilities to the commissioners;
  • (B) Set out the terms of reference for the public inquiry;
  • (C) Set out any special provisions respecting the manner in which the public inquiry is to proceed;
  • (D) Fix the date for the delivery of the commission’s report;
  • (E) Provide for any matters required if an agreement is made under section 4 to establish a joint commission; and
  • (F) If the Attorney General is not to be responsible for the public inquiry, designate the Minister who is to be responsible.

“Once established, the Commission is required to undertake the following: conduct its public inquiry faithfully, honestly and impartially in accordance with its terms of reference; ensure that its public inquiry conducted effectively, expeditiously, and in accordance with the principle of proportionality; and ensure that it is financially responsible and operates within its budget,” said White.

“The budget of the commission is to be established by the minister responsible for the public inquiry.”

What will the public inquiry look into?

Mulroney said on Thursday that the scope of the inquiry and the terms of reference will be established in the coming weeks.

The transportation minister told reporters that the inquiry would look into the safety of the trains, technical elements, value for money and accountability, including examining the procurement process.

Who could lead the public inquiry into Ottawa’s LRT system?

Daly says the Public Inquiries Act is “pretty open-ended” when it comes to who the Ontario government could appoint to lead the public inquiry into Ottawa’s LRT system.

“They could appoint me; they could appoint you, Kristy; they could appoint Mickey Mouse, the cast of Schitt’s Creek – it could be anybody,” said Daly during the interview with Kristy Cameron on Newstalk 580 CFRA.

Daly notes often the commissioner is a judge.

“Public inquiries in Canada and in Ontario we’ve had judges who have been the commissioners. There can be one commissioner, there can be several commissioners. There’s no magic to the identity of the commissioner, whoever the government thinks is a good person to run the public inquiry can be appointed to run the public inquiry.”

What powers will the public inquiry have to probe the LRT system?

Daly says the commissioner or commissioners of the public inquiry will have “wide powers” of access to speak with elected officials and staff associated with the LRT project, and view documents.

“First is the government will set out the terms of reference. They’ll tell the public inquiry, the commissioners what they are to look into. The commissioners can hire staff to assist them; they can set out rules about how they’re going to go about their proceeding. The government decides whether there’s going to be a public hearing or not,” said Daly.

“The public inquiry itself, the commissioners, they decide what the procedure is, who they need to hear from in order to get information which is relevant to finding out what happened and making recommendations about what we should do going forward.”

White told councillors the commission may establish its own rules and procedures, and “may engage in any activity appropriate to fulfilling its duties.”

White says that can include conducting research and collecting information; consulting, in private or in public, with individuals or groups, including consulting prior to making its rules or determining who may participate in the public inquiry. The commission could also consult with the public and receive oral and written submissions.

Will people testify under oath at the public inquiry?

“A public inquiry is going to have similar powers to a court of law,” said Daly.

“It is a court-like process. It’s not a trial because the object isn’t to find out if someone is guilty or someone should pay damages because they harmed somebody else. The purpose is to find the facts and to make recommendations, and that is a very serious process, which involves careful examination of documents, careful examination of witnesses,” said the University of Ottawa professor.

“The public inquiry has very extensive powers to make sure the witnesses appear before it, tell the truth and it has access to documentary evidence and the records it needs to find the facts, find out what happened and make recommendations to avoid it happening in the future.”

Timeline for the public inquiry to submit its report

The commission looking into Ottawa’s LRT system is required to deliver its report to the minister responsible for the inquiry.

Mulroney told reporters that she hopes to have recommendations in the new year.

White says once the commission has completed its information-gathering phase of the inquiry it will deliver its report within the timelines established by the province. The city solicitor says the commission may also deliver an interim report.

What will happen with the auditor general’s investigation?

Council voted this fall to ask the auditor general to investigate Ottawa’s LRT contract and the rollout of the system. 

White told council that the establishment of a commission of an inquiry does not serve to supplant the work of the auditor general.

Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon said she’s waiting to see the public inquiry’s terms of reference before deciding whether to continue with her investigation.

“With the recent news of the province’s decision to launch a Public Inquiry, my Office is reviewing the best way we can continue to add value while being prudent with tax payer dollars,” Gougeon said in a statement to CTV News Ottawa.

“It is too soon for my Office to make a decision on its next course of action until we have further information from the province on the potential scope of the work they will be undertaking.”

Gougeon previously said the goal was to present at least the first part of her audit to the city by June.

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