Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark broke the Member’s Integrity Act when carving up the Greenbelt for development, a new report by the province’s integrity commissioner finds.
In a report released Wednesday, Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake found that Clark contravened two sections of the Members’ Integrity Act by “failing to oversee the process by which lands in the Greenbelt were selected to development.”
The 166-page report found this lead to “the private interests of certain developers being furthered improperly.”
“The evidence paints a picture of a process marked by misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception,” Wake wrote in the summary of his report.
Wake acknowledges that while Clark’s chief of staff—who resigned from his position following a bombshell report by the auditor general over the handling of the Greenbelt—embarked on a “chaotic and almost reckless process,” it was ultimately the minister’s responsibility to supervise his staff.
According to the integrity commissioner, Clark misinterpreted a mandate letter regarding removal of land from the Greenbelt resulting in a rushed timeline, made the decision to withdraw from supervision over the decision-making process, and took the proposal to cabinet without properly questioning his staff’s choices.
“It may seem incredible that Minister Clark would have chosen to stick his head in the sand on such an important initiative being undertaken by his ministry but I believe that was exactly what he did.”
As such, Wake found that Clark breached sections 2 and 3(2) of the Member’s Integrity Act. These sections cover conflicts of interest and the use of insider information.
The commissioner has recommended that Clark be formally reprimanded for his actions. Wake is not recommending any other penalties, though he acknowledged in his report that there will be a “political price to be paid.”
Clark, meanwhile, said in a statement that he accepts the integrity commissioner’s findings.
Clark added that going forward he is “fully committed” to fulfilling the government’s promise to build at least 1.5 million homes and “will ensure the process is done with integrity and trust.”
“As minister, the buck stops with me,” he said. “There were clear flaws in the process that led to today’s report.”
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark speaks in Ontario legislature in Toronto on Thursday, May 18, 2023. Most Ontario landlords will be able to increase rent by up to 2.5 per cent next year. Clark says the rent increase guideline for 2024 is set at the same rate as for this year, and he notes that it is below the average inflation rate of 5.9 per cent. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
It all began after the Premier’s Office said, in a mandate letter in June 2022, which asked the housing minister to, “in Fall 2022, complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt.”
It also asked that a compressive plan be created to expand and protect the Greenbelt.
The integrity commissioner found that Clark’s office interpreted this request as direction to develop and implement policy rather quickly after the Progressive Conservative’s were re-elected. However, the Premier’s Office’s understanding was that this was intended as a general policy direction.
What followed is a largely unsupervised process in which Clark’s chief of staff, Ryan Amato, went forward and took meetings, spoke with developers, and put forward a policy that would see 15 sites ultimately removed from the protected land, the integrity commissioner found.
Wake said he spoke with 61 witnesses over the course of his investigation. What he learned was that it wasn’t until around September—around the same time as Building and Land Development Association’s Chair’s dinner where Amato received packages from developers about possible land removal sites—that both Amato and Clark believed the premier was “very serious” about using some of the Greenbelt land for housing.
After that, it appears as though Amato acted primarily on his own to set a plan in motion.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk already found that that 14 of the 15 Greenbelt sites chosen for removal were directly proposed by Amato. About 92 per cent of the 7,400 acres can also be tied to three developers who had direct access to the housing ministry.
The integrity commissioner’s report widely supports the claim that Amato took charge of the file over the next few months, putting feelers out to developers and collecting further information on USB sticks, which were then given to a team set with making the land removal decisions.
“I find that Mr. Amato succeeded in this deception by dropping frequent references to meeting with staff of the Premier’s Office as the selections were being put forward to ministry officials for consideration,” Wake wrote.
Throughout the process, the Premier’s Office was kept in the dark until just before the decisions were finalized, the report found.
‘LEAVE IT TO ME’
The integrity commissioner said that Clark was absent from the Greenbelt file since Sept. 15, after Amato told him to “leave it with me.” It wasn’t until he was briefed on Oct. 26, before cabinet finalized the land removals, that he was informed of Amato’s progress, the report found.
“I find that he never knew, nor did he question how properties were selected for removal or redesignation from the Greenbelt until after the matter had gone to cabinet,” Wake said.
“The chaos surrounding this process led to an uninformed and opaque decision which resulted in the creation of an opportunity to further the private interests of some developers improperly.”
Wake argues that Clark needs to be held responsible for Amato’s actions, as he “failed to oversee an important initiative in his ministry.”
The report finds that developers may not have been blatantly tipped off about the government’s Greenbelt plans, but that they were alerted to potential changes when Amato asked for information and attended their offices to collect details about their properties.
The report does note that neither Clark nor Amato had close personal relationships with any of the developers.
CALLS CONTINUE FOR CLARK’S RESIGNATION
Opposition parties have been calling for Clark’s resignation since the auditor general first released her report in early August. On Wednesday, all three parties reiterated this call, with the NDP arguing the integrity commissioner’s report is proof of “gross incompetence,” and “at worst, it’s corruption, and collusion with developers.”
“It’s been clear to us that Mr. Clark needs to resign,” NDP Leader Marit Stiles said at Queen’s Park.
“Now, it’s time that the premier needs to do his job and kick him out of cabinet. Enough is enough.”
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said that Clark has lost the trust of the public while Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner added that Clark’s behaviours is unacceptable for an elected official.
Despite these calls, the Premier’s Office is standing by its housing minister, saying in a statement that 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.”
“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.”
A senior source close to the premier told CTV News that Ford is fighting to keep Clark while staff argue it may be the only decision.
The legislature is required to address the integrity commissioner’s report in 30 days, which means it will have to be discussed when MPPs return to Queen’s Park on the week of Sept. 25.