The chief architect of the protected Greenbelt that surrounds the Greater Toronto Area’s suburbs has won a battle with the province after he was disciplined and demoted for speaking to The Globe and Mail and defending the anti-sprawl measure last year.
Victor Doyle, a professional planner and a senior provincial bureaucrat who oversaw planning across central Ontario for more than 20 years, was told he was in a “conflict of interest” after releasing a policy paper and giving an interview to The Globe in May of 2017, when the then-Liberal government at Queen’s Park was reviewing the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Mr. Doyle, who has since retired, challenged the discipline he faced before Ontario’s Public Service Grievance Board. He compared the move to punish him to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s policy of “muzzling” climate-change scientists and warned it was creating a chill for others in the Ontario civil service.
In a decision dated Oct. 26, the board ruled the province had breached its “duty of procedural fairness” to Mr. Doyle by disciplining him without even allowing him a chance to formally respond. The ruling also wipes out the finding that he was in a conflict of interest.
“It is quite remarkable that a senior civil servant who had been entrusted with some of the most important responsibilities in land-use planning in the province for decades, with no criticism of his performance, was not apprised of the employer’s concerns and proposed solution and asked what he had to say before he was sidelined,” the decision by board chairwoman Kathleen O’Neil reads.
But the decision does not order other things Mr. Doyle demanded in his fight with his employers, including stricter ethics rules for senior civil servants and protections for those who speak out, saying these matters were beyond the board’s jurisdiction.
A spokesman for the province’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs declined to comment, saying the government does not discuss personnel issues.
Mr. Doyle says he intends to continue to campaign for reforms. Among them is his call for Ontario to appoint a provincial chief planner with a similar level of independence as the province’s chief medical officer of health, who can speak out without fear of political reprisals.
He says even with the recent ruling in his favour, it remains difficult for civil servants to stand up to senior brass and elected governments: “In terms of democracy, and an informed electorate, we need that kind of frankness.”
The issues Mr. Doyle raised came up in this year’s spring election campaign: Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, now the Premier, was forced to backtrack after video emerged of him pledging to hand over a “big chunk” of the Greenbelt to developers.
In his paper and in his comments to The Globe in 2017, Mr. Doyle alleged the building industry had waged an “inaccurate” public-relations campaign suggesting the Greenbelt and the province’s Growth Plan were cutting off the supply of desirable low-density housing in the suburbs and driving up prices. Mr. Doyle said the plan allows for hundreds of thousands of approved sites for townhouses, semi-detached and detached homes – enough to last decades without touching the Greenbelt.
He was demoted less than a month later, transferred to a nearly vacant floor of offices and told to research driverless cars. But it was not the first time he clashed with his bosses: He had already been embroiled in a similar decade-long battle with his employer.
In 2003, he says top officials in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs took away his authority over a single, but massive, development file in Simcoe County north of Toronto, when he was manager of community planning for central Ontario.
Mr. Doyle spent 2004 and 2005 seconded to the project to design the Greenbelt, and then returned to his planning post. But he soon found himself excluded from any role in planning issues in all of Simcoe, which was facing immense pressure from builders seeking to “leapfrog” the protected Greenbelt.
He said he believed the changes to his job came after complaints from developers to the civil service and the then-Liberal government. In 2009, he went public with his concerns over the government’s plans for the area, and was found in conflict of interest and transferred to a different post – a move he also challenged, unsuccessfully.