Thanks to a report earlier this month from the province’s Auditor-General, the Ontario public woke up on Wednesday already knowing that the 15 sites the Ford government opened for development in the Greenbelt this year were selected in “a biased process that was non-transparent to the public,” and which led to “certain prominent developers receiving preferential treatment.”
Now, thanks to an equally damning report on the same subject from the Integrity Commissioner, the public knows this process was further compromised by the actions of Ontario’s Housing Minister, Steve Clark, and that it involved violations of the provincial law governing conflicts of interest and the sharing of insider information by elected officials.
Mr. Clark did not himself directly commit those violations. The problem was his lack of effort to prevent them.
The Integrity Commissioner, J. David Wake, found that Mr. Clark failed to oversee his former chief of staff, Ryan Amato, as the latter went about collecting information from favoured developers on potential sites to be removed from the Greenbelt, and then pushed those sites through the truncated and shoddy selection process laid bare in the Auditor-General’s report.
Mr. Amato, who resigned last week, seems to have gone rogue. As a political staffer, he wasn’t supposed to direct public servants in the housing ministry unless he was acting as a proxy for his minister or the Premier. Which he wasn’t.
But, as Mr. Wake reported, department staff “actually believed that [Mr. Amato] was filling a proxy role from the Premier’s Office or, in one case, from Premier Ford himself,” and that he “succeeded in this deception” by dropping frequent references to meetings with staff in the Premier’s office that Mr. Wake says didn’t occur.
All of this activity was the result of a single sentence in Mr. Clark’s mandate letter after the 2022 re-election of the Ford government, in which the Premier asked his Housing Minister to, “in Fall 2022, complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt.”
The Integrity Commissioner says Mr. Clark and Mr. Amato misinterpreted that instruction as meaning they should find a way to quickly remove specific sites from the Greenbelt, rather than explore the possibility of breaking an election promise made repeatedly by Mr. Clark and Premier Ford not to open up the Greenbelt to development, and to codify a potential process for selecting properties.
Mr. Wake also concluded that Mr. Amato effectively tipped off some developers to what was in the confidential mandate letter by going back to them for information about land they had personally proposed to him for removal from the Greenbelt. Developers “are not stupid,” Mr. Wake said.
Meanwhile, his boss, Mr. Clark, left him to his devices. The Integrity Commissioner ruled that, between misinterpreting the mandate letter, not supervising Mr. Amato and then failing to ask questions about how the selection process worked before taking it to cabinet, the Housing Minister violated the conflict of interest and insider information sections of the Members’ Integrity Act.
In ruling so, Mr. Wake has struck a blow for ministerial responsibility. It may be true Mr. Clark was unaware of what his chief of staff was up to, but that doesn’t save him. Instead, as Mr. Wake says, it was “an aggravating element” that led “to the private interests of certain developers being furthered improperly.”
Mr. Wake is recommending that the legislature vote to reprimand Mr. Clark by accepting his report. That’s unlikely, of course, since Mr. Ford’s PC Party has a majority, and Mr. Ford is not someone to admit fault. Both he and Mr. Clark said Wednesday that Mr. Clark will not be resigning, and that the minister will “ensure public trust and confidence is maintained every step of the way” as the government goes about meeting its goal of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years.
Sorry, but it’s too late for trust and confidence. The two damning reports point to so many irregularities in the Greenbelt saga that Mr. Clark’s continued presence in cabinet should raise serious questions about Mr. Ford’s judgment.
The reports’ combined findings also mean the government should reverse itself and put the land in question back into the Greenbelt. If Mr. Ford wants to restart the process, he should do it in a way that, in the Integrity Commissioner’s words, isn’t so flawed as to be “almost reckless.”