An investigation by Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake has found Housing Minister Steve Clark broke numerous ethics laws by failing to adequately monitor staff under his control, while the PC government quietly laid out its plans to give powerful developers what they want—to bulldoze thousands of acres of Greenbelt land for residential construction valued at more than $8 billion. 

Wake addressed allegations that developers were “tipped off” by PC insiders when the decision to unlock 15 parcels from the protected greenspace was unfolding. While Wake found no evidence to support a direct tip-off, he showed how the concerted effort by the PC government to dismantle regulations around smart planning and environmental protection, and the years-long lobbying effort by developers worked hand-in-hand to open up the protected Greenbelt for development. It was a plan that Premier Doug Ford and some of the most powerful developers in Canada were called out on in 2018, when a leaked video ahead of his first election captured Ford promising a room-full of builders that if they helped him win the premier’s seat, he would open up “a big chunk” of the Greenbelt for them. 

While acknowledging former Chief of Staff for the Housing Ministry, Ryan Amato, worked behind the scenes on the “Greenbelt Plan”, which saw 15 parcels of land removed from the protected landscape in late 2022, Wake found Clark made three crucial mistakes that allowed the flawed process to continue, favouring certain developers and ultimately putting a total of $8.3 billion of land value into their hands.

“The evidence paints a picture of a process marked by misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception,” Wake wrote in his report, released this week.

He found Clark misinterpreted the mandate letter provided by Premier Ford to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) following the PC government’s re-election in 2022.

In June 2022, Minister Clark received the mandate letter from the Premier’s Office with a lengthy to-do list of items to focus on during the government’s term. Despite vowing throughout the PCs’ first term that they would not touch the Greenbelt—after backlash following the leaked video of Ford promising a room full of developers he would open the protected greenspace for new-home construction—the mandate letter included a key direction to “complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt”.

Wake found Clark and Amato gravely misunderstood the direction given about the Greenbelt, and that there was no need for the process to unfold as quickly as it did, sidestepping consultations and important reviews, leading to a process that resulted in lands being removed without any concrete criteria to justify doing so. 

Because Ford continues to fight a legal battle to keep the mandate letters hidden from the public (an unprecedented move) it remains unclear how the government’s actions to allow development in the Greenbelt diverged from its own stated, but secret, mandate. 

At the heart of the trouble for Ford and the PCs is the matter of how the 15 parcels, specifically, were chosen, and why the government moved so fast to give a small number of developers what they wanted, ultimately increasing the value of Greenbelt lands they purchased by more than $8 billion, a process now under investigation by the RCMP.

The former Liberal government conducted a review of the Greenbelt in 2015, which lasted several months and included a team of experts and public consultations. The review received over 700 requests for land removals and resulted in boundary changes and the inclusion of 21 urban river valleys. Lands were removed from the Greenbelt in Hamilton, Clarington and Vaughan, but the overall process resulted in a net increase of 24,000 acres of protected land. 

Andrew Snidell, Deputy Chief of Staff and Policy at the Office of the Premier, who penned the mandate letter regarding the Greenbelt, which has never been made public, expressed to Wake that he believed the Greenbelt would be addressed in 2023 or 2024. Other staffers agreed they did not believe the Greenbelt Plan would be ready by late 2022, shortly after the unveiling of Bill 23, which lays out and gives authority for the PCs’ developer-driven plan to build 1.5 million homes by 2031.

In a press conference held Thursday following the release of the Integrity Commissioner’s report, Clark said he was under pressure to achieve the goal of building 1.5 million homes in less than a decade, a goal that led to the implementation of the Greenbelt Plan.

“The motivation has always been to build homes,” he said.

Despite this claim, the Integrity Commissioner chastised Clark for removing himself from the process and delegating full authority to inexperienced and untrained staff. It has left critics questioning whether he removed authority from himself in order to avoid accountability in a decision that was sure to be politically unpopular when revealed to the public. Clark and Ford have been accused of using staffers as a way to deflect from their own conduct, allegedly directing the entire scheme in order to create billions of dollars in value for powerful building-sector donors who have long supported Ford and the PCs. 

Questions are still circling about just how much Ford and Clark knew about the selection process that led to the removal of the 15 parcels of land. While Minister Clark vows he had his “head in the sand” and Ford has repeatedly maintained he knew nothing of the process until Cabinet was briefed on the proposal ahead of its final approval, the IC’s report contains evidence that suggests meetings took place with their respective offices briefing them on the matter earlier than they claim. 

Wake cites typed notes from an unnamed ministry official of a meeting that took place on October 21, 2022. The notes detail a senior planner pointing out three additional sites that weren’t included on any prior list, and Amato stating “3 additional files were given straight from premier.” 

“I confirmed with the note taker that this official made these notes at the time and that these are words that this official believed were said by the speakers at the time,” Wake writes. “The official acknowledged it was possible that Mr. Amato mentioned the ‘Premier’s Office’ but explained that if he had, the official would have written “PO” which is the short form used for the Premier’s Office. As set out above, ‘PO’ is not used in that particular note.”

Wake continues: “Another ministry official advised they recalled being told files had been given straight from the Premier, but they did not recall which ones.”

When questioned by the integrity commissioner, both Ford and Amato denied that Ford directly provided sites to be removed from the Greenbelt. Ford said he “is not in any way familiar” with the sites mentioned in the notes and Amato said “the Premier never gave me any of those files.”

Wake concluded he found it “more likely than not” that Amato did tell officials the properties were given directly from the Premier, but “based on contemporaneous notes and evidence” found this to be nothing but “dropping the name of the premier” in order to “lend authority to his direction to the ministry public servants and not based in reality.”

While Wake states there was “no evidence received from any witness or in any document to suggest Minister Clark personally played a role in the selection of the properties”, there is evidence to suggest Clark was more involved in the process than he is publicly claiming. 

Notes from the October 21, 2022 meeting provide further evidence that Clark was involved prior to the October 26, 2022 Cabinet meeting, with ministry officials writing Clark was concerned about servicing on particular suites and the ability to build quickly. Another note references a “briefing with M on wed” and “need to finalize the list in scope; will raise issues re: use it/lose it; on M’s mind, servicing for each property.”

M being a short-form for Minister. 

When questioned about these notes during his interview with Wake, Clark said he had no recollection of any meetings prior to October 26. 

Minister Clark expressed to Wake that he had his “head in the sand” and that he left this policy initiative to his chief of staff and other ministry officials.

“I accept that I ought to have had greater oversight over my former chief of staff and over the process, and to Ontarians I want to say very sincerely that I apologize that I did not,” Clark stated in a press conference Thursday.

Even though he states that he believes Clark was unaware of the process, Wake does not accept this as an excuse for the actions that were undertaken.

“Mr. Amato’s communications to developers must be attributed to Mr. Clark because I find he failed to oversee an important initiative in his ministry which led to some developers being alerted to a potential change in the government’s position on the Greenbelt with the result that their private interests were furthered improperly,” he wrote.

While the claim that Clark and Ford were not aware of the process was also stated in Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report released earlier this month, opposition leaders have been quick to see through the remarks.

Following the release of the AG report, NDP MPP and leader of the Official Opposition, Marit Stiles, called Ford and Clark’s claims “dubious” and “implausible”. 

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said it was “unbelievable” that Clark was oblivious to the Greenbelt Plan and how the parcels of land were chosen.

“The Integrity Commissioner said he put his head in the sand. I would say this minister, with 40 years of experience, knew what he carried to Cabinet, knew what he asked his Cabinet colleagues to support, and to say here that he needs to fix the process, is not accepting responsibility,” he said. “He’s saying I accept the responsibility but there is no consequence.”

Wake also criticized Minister Clark’s failure to question his Chief of Staff about the process and blindly accepted the 15 parcels chosen for removal. Following the release of the Auditor General’s report earlier this month. The report makes it clear that Amato, the man the PCs have pinned the scandal on, had no training in this area and Amato himself made it clear to Wake he really didn’t believe his report would be taken seriously or even passed. 

“I thought this was going to be one of two things: it was going to be, like, a white rabbit I chased for four years that never happened, or it was just, when it came to decision-makers, it was going to be, like, ‘You know what, we’re not going to do this,” Amato told Wake. 

This means, if Clark and Ford are to be believed, the pair blindly accepted the report from a small group of unelected staffers with next to no experience to make the significant decision to parcel out pieces of the world’s largest swath of protected greenspace. 

When Stiles made the request for the Integrity Commissioner investigation back in January, she expressed a desire to know whether developers were “tipped off” that the Greenbelt would be open for development. Through his investigation, Wake did not find evidence that any developer was told directly by the Minister, the Chief of Staff or other officials that the government was planning on removing lands from the Greenbelt. But the actions that ensued gave non-verbal assurance to developers that they could vouch for their properties to be removed.

Wake’s findings build upon those released by AG Lysyk earlier this month. Lysyk’s report exposed how, despite the prevailing narrative of a “tip off” to developers, the process actually unfolded in the opposite way, with developers directly influencing the government on which parcels of land should be opened up. 

Lysyk’s audit revealed how developers had approached Amato, instructing him about the removal of their lands, including handing over packages of documents during the Building Industry and Land Development dinner in September of 2022.

Michael Rice and Silvio De Gasperis, two of the developers that benefited greatly from the land removals,  provided packages containing information about two of the Greenbelt land sites to the chief of staff, who told Lysyk that one of the two developers provided him with additional information and requests to remove three more parcels of land. These five sites represent approximately 92 percent of the land area removed from the Greenbelt late last year by the PCs. 

The day after the instructions were handed to Amato, a parcel of land in King Township, in the Greenbelt, was sold to one of the two developers for $80 million. It would be part of the approximately 6,800 acres in the Greenbelt controlled by the two developers, of the 7,400 that was eventually approved by Ford for future home construction.

“What we are witnessing is the culmination of a multi-faceted, heavily resourced strategic development industry campaign stretching back well over 10 years—setting the stage for when a careless, uninformed and/or ideologically wreckless government came to power which lacked integrity and honesty and was more than willing to simply accept whatever industry positions were given to it —as the Auditor General clearly revealed when documenting developers writing content and lands to be removed from the Greenbelt which was simply cut and pasted into Ontario legislation and policy,” Victor Doyle, a former planner with the Ontario government and “architect” of the Greenbelt previously told The Pointer.

Given the government had claimed in its previous term that it would not touch the Greenbelt, when staff of the MMAH were suddenly asking developers for information about certain properties, it set off alarm bells that changes would be occurring, sending developers in a race to get their properties on the top of the pile. 

“I find that these actions were tantamount to Mr. Amato saying the words he had been careful not to say,” Wake wrote.

Wake spoke with Rice, one of the prominent developers who benefited greatly from the removals, who expressed that he has believed for years the Greenbelt would be opened up for housing, a theory that was given credence when Ford made the promise in 2018 before backtracking prior to the election.

“He explained that he was aware of Premier Ford’s statements about opening up the Greenbelt in early 2018, and has observed that since being elected in 2018, this government has taken steps that indicated to him the ‘writing was on the wall’ that lands in the Greenbelt would be opened for development,” Wake wrote.

Rice further referenced legislative changes made in 2019 including dismantling the power of conservation authorities and reducing consideration for endangered species, as evidence that the Greenbelt would be opened.

“[He said that] if, by 2022, a developer was not thinking about the Greenbelt opening up ‘they were asleep’,” Wake wrote.

Based on the evidence gathered throughout his inquiry, Wake concluded that Minister Clark breached both section 2 and section 3(2) of the Member’s Integrity Act by allowing a process to unfold that resulted in improper insider information to be communicated that furthered another person’s private interest. In his conclusion, Wake asserts that Minister Clark should be reprimanded. 

But while Clark apologized to a room full of journalists Thursday, the government is doing very little to fix the extensive wrongdoing that culminated in the Greenbelt Plan.

Following the release of the AG’s report, the PCs asserted that they would follow through on 14 of Lysyk’s 15 recommendations. But the majority of the recommendations simply required the government to follow policies and guidelines that already exist and the only recommendation that they did not agree to was Lysyk’s call to reverse the legislation and for the 15 parcels to be returned to the Greenbelt.

In a clear attempt to turn down the heat the government is currently facing, Ford announced Wednesday that he was beginning the process of returning a parcel of land in Ajax back to the Greenbelt. Ford said that once the PC government learned the owner had placed the land up for sale after its removal from the Greenbelt, it violated the purpose of unlocking it, which is to get homes built immediately.

It remains unclear whether Clark will face any consequences for his failures in the Greenbelt scandal. Ford has consistently maintained he will not be asking for Clark’s resignation, and any potential reprimand will need to be approved by the Legislature, which has a strong PC majority. 

In his report Wake states that Minister Clark appeared to show no remorse for his actions in the scandal. However, on Thursday he repeatedly apologized for the process and said he accepts responsibility.

But when asked why he was not resigning, Clark repeatedly avoided the question. 

“We are going to implement a better process moving forward,” he said.

The statement was not satisfactory for opposition leaders, all three of whom are calling on Clark to resign.

“I believe the Minister will eventually step down. The longer this Minister is in place, the longer this will stick to the Premier,” Fraser said. “If anyone else there who has a job failed in the way this Minister failed, they would be out of a job pretty quick.”

Fraser said the scandal should be brought before committee when the Legislature reconvenes next week.

“This is going to go on for a long time,” he said. “This is not going away.” 

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 03, 2023 at 14:15

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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