Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark apologized Thursday for a lack of oversight into his own office over the removal of select lands from the Greenbelt, but refused to resign after the province’s Integrity Commissioner found that he violated ethics laws.
Premier Doug Ford continued to back his minister, saying he has confidence in Mr. Clark despite being “not happy” with the way the lands were chosen for development.
Mr. Clark said he accepts responsibility for the “very clear flaws” in the process laid out in a scathing report Wednesday from Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake. That process, led by Mr. Clark’s former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, was marked by “misinterpretation, unnecessary hastiness and deception,” the report found, which created “an opportunity to further the private interests of some developers improperly.”
The report said Mr. Clark failed to properly oversee “an important initiative in his ministry” – namely, the process by which 3,000 hectares of land were removed from the province’s Greenbelt, an environmentally protected zone that arcs around the Greater Toronto Area. The government added new protected land elsewhere – part of what was described as a land swap.
“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,” Mr. Clark told reporters at Queen’s Park.
But he rebuffed repeated calls from opposition members Thursday to resign, adding that the government is committed to improving the process in the future.
“I’m sorry that we didn’t do a better job and that I personally didn’t do a better job,” he said. “I take responsibility and I regret that the process that came under my watch didn’t meet expectations.”
Mr. Wake said in his report that he believed Mr. Clark chose to “stick his head in the sand” on the decision-making process to remove land from the Greenbelt. Responding to the findings, Mr. Clark said he accepts responsibility that the process “should have been more directly related to myself.”
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Ford continued to defend Mr. Clark, who is also the Municipal Affairs Minister.
“I have confidence in Minister Clark. He has a big file. I take full responsibility. The buck stops with me,” Mr. Ford said at a separate news conference, adding that Mr. Clark has a “tough job.”
He told reporters that Mr. Clark’s mandate is to build at least 1.5 million homes by 2031 to address the housing crisis. While he expressed displeasure with the way the lands from the Greenbelt were selected, he vowed to press ahead with his plans to build.
“Am I happy about the process? I’m not happy at all about it,” the Premier said. “I’m going to stand by our team members.”
Mr. Ford also took aim at developers whose land was removed from the Greenbelt, telling them they need to start building homes or the lands will be returned.
The Premier said he nearly “fell off my chair” when he learned that two sites that were removed in Ajax, Ont., were recently put up for sale by the owner. A representative for the China-based owner said the matter is a misunderstanding and that his client was trying to partner with a developer to meet the government’s requirements. The government has now begun the process to put those sites back into the Greenbelt.
In a statement, NDP Opposition Leader Marit Stiles called Mr. Clark’s apology “fake” and said his words are meaningless without resigning from his position.
“The Premier needs to step up, show some leadership, kick Clark out of cabinet. Then get us all back in the legislature so we can restore all of these lands back to the Greenbelt,” she said.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser told reporters that his party has called for a legislature committee to review the Greenbelt land-swap process and interview all those involved, with pertinent documents provided to the committee. He called for Mr. Ford to waive cabinet privilege to release information as it relates to the Greenbelt deals.
Mr. Fraser said the minister failed Ontarians by not having more oversight over the process and should resign. When in opposition, Mr. Clark called for the resignation of ministers of the previous Liberal government embroiled in controversy on numerous occasions. Mr. Fraser said “it’s more than a little bit rich” that he now isn’t holding himself to the same standard.
Mr. Wake’s report recommended that Mr. Clark be reprimanded by members of the legislature for failing to comply with two sections of the Members’ Integrity Act. MPPs are expected to vote on whether to reprimand him when the legislature returns in the fall. Mr. Ford would not say whether he would vote to reprimand his minister.
The report found that Mr. Clark contravened both the conflict-of-interest and insider-information sections of the act, which bars MPPs from making a decision or using information not available to the public to further their or another person’s private interests.
A report from Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk, released on Aug. 9, found the government’s process led by Mr. Amato was “biased” and “favoured certain developers,” delivering them a potential $8.3-billion windfall. All but one of the properties selected for removal was identified by Mr. Amato, findings confirmed by both Ms. Lysyk and Mr. Wake.
Mr. Amato resigned from his position last week, just a day before the Ontario Provincial Police announced that it was referring a probe into a possible criminal investigation on the matter to the RCMP.
Mr. Wake will now consider a request from Mr. Ford’s office to look into Mr. Amato’s conduct as a public servant.