Ontario housing minister violated ethics rules in Greenbelt land swap, integrity commissioner says

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Ontario’s minister of housing Steve Clark listens as Ford speaks during a press conference in Mississauga, Ont., Friday, Aug. 11, 2023.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark violated ethics rules in the government’s decision to remove select lands from the Greenbelt, leading to the interests of certain developers being “furthered improperly,” the province’s integrity commissioner says.

In a 166-page report released Wednesday, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake recommended Mr. Clark be sanctioned by members of the Legislature for failing to comply with two sections of the Members’ Integrity Act.

Mr. Wake found that the minister failed to properly oversee the process by which 3,000 hectares of land were removed from the province’s protected Greenbelt. The province’s decision late last year to remove 15 parcels of land from the Greenbelt to allow for development has been met with significant criticism from opposition politicians and environmental groups.

A report from Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk earlier this month found the government’s process, led by Mr. Clark’s chief of staff Ryan Amato, was “biased” and “favoured certain developers.” All but one of the properties selected for removal was identified by Mr. Amato after he received documents from two developers requesting that these lands be removed at a dinner in September, 2022.

Mr. Amato resigned from his position last week, just a day before the Ontario Provincial Police announced it was referring a probe into a possible criminal investigation on the matter to the RCMP. Kathryn Marshall, Mr. Amato’s lawyer, said her client had no comment about the integrity commissioner’s report.

Opinion: Doug Ford has yet to do the bare minimum on the Greenbelt development scandal

The report said Mr. Clark “misinterpreted” a mandate letter from Premier Doug Ford calling on him to look at possible amendments to the Greenbelt which resulted in a “rushed and flawed process” led by Mr. Amato. Both Mr. Clark and Mr. Ford have repeatedly said they were unaware of Mr. Amato’s process in selecting the sites for removal and didn’t know what sites were chosen until they were presented to cabinet.

“Since supervision of staff is incumbent on the minister, Minister Clark’s lack of oversight led to some developers being alerted to a potential change in the government’s position on the Greenbelt, resulting in their private interests being furthered improperly,” Mr. Wake’s report said. “Minister Clark did not question or properly oversee Mr. Amato’s selection process before the matter was presented to cabinet.”

Opposition parties have been calling for Mr. Clark’s resignation from his cabinet portfolio for weeks.

Mr. Ford on Wednesday continued to stand by his minister.

In a statement, his office said the government’s goal in the Greenbelt land swap has always been to build more affordable homes. He said his government will use “every tool in our toolbox” to build homes particularly for young people and newcomers.

“We’ve acknowledged areas where we need to improve; the Integrity Commissioner reiterated that today, and we’ll continue to work to strengthen the process moving forward,” said a statement released by Mr. Ford’s office.

“Minister Clark will continue to work towards delivering on our promise to build at least 1.5 million homes and ensure public trust and confidence is maintained every step of the way.”

In his own statement, Mr. Clark said he accepts the report but will remain in the role.

“As minister, the buck stops with me and I accept the Integrity Commissioner’s findings. There were clear flaws in the process that led to today’s report,” he said. “I am fully committed to fulfilling our government’s promise to build at least 1.5 million homes and will ensure the process is done with integrity and trust.”

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles told reporters on Wednesday at Queen’s Park that Mr. Wake’s report shows the process for selecting the lands was unfair, hasty and deceptive.

“We need to call it what it is: corruption. It’s been clear to us that Mr. Clark needs to resign… . Now it’s time that the Premier needs to do his job and kick him out of cabinet.”

More to come.

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