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Inside the "scathing" Greenbelt audit
In her last move as provincial auditor, Bonnie Lysyk found the controversial Greenbelt land swap "biased" as Team Ford goes on defense and gears up for what's next
Premier Doug Ford's government's Greenbelt land swap was "not transparent, fair, objective or fully informed," with direct access to key political staffers resulting in "preferential treatment" for big shot developers.
That's the gist of watchdog Bonnie Lysyk's blistering audit of the Tories' controversial development plans on the protected green space.
"Fair, transparent and respectful consultation did not take place," Lysyk told reporters after her stormy probe into the land swap dropped. It's one that resulted in a brewing court battle to block two summons and Ford insisting that the investigation is "not within her scope."
Lysyk found that the process behind the Greenbelt changes — despite not being needed to meet the government's promised ten year housing target — was "seriously flawed and dismissive" of effective land planning. "A biased process," she taxed, implicating a senior staffer on Housing Minister Steve Clark's team.
Here's what Lysyk found in her explosive compte rendu:
Immediately after the Tories' super majority win, Clark was given a mandate letter directing him to "complete work to codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt" by the fall.
It was Ryan Amato — Clark's chief of staff — who controlled the operation to select acreage for development.
Amato, according to Lysyk, attended a September dinner hosted by the Building and Land Development Association where "packages" were handed to him by two "prominent developers" — Silvio De Gasperis and Michael Rice — with info on two of the removed sites. A majority of the acreage removed from the protected land was from areas suggested by both builders, who've gone to court to block or delay Lysyk's summons, calling the probe an "overstep" in her authority.
"[Amato] told us that whenever he received any packages, he did not immediately open them and review their contents," Lysyk said, noting that he'd keep them in "a stack on his office." Under questioning, Amato insisted that he didn't tell the developers about the Tories' plan to remove the suggested spaces.
Two days after the dinner, the carve-up operation began.
Amato, according to Lysyk, directed six civil servants, forming the "Greenbelt Project Team," to initiate a three week "site specific review" to assess explicit land sites for removal from the Greenbelt. At his direction, confidentiality agreements were set in place, preventing staff from contacting other ministries, impacted municipalities or stakeholders to consult. When the team "required more detailed information on the land sites they were asked to assess," it was Amato who gathered information by reaching out to developers.
Of twenty two sites, Clark's highest ranking aide provided the team with twenty one sites for consideration while asking them to suggest others. "At least nine" of the sites that were identified by Amato came from requests made by "a few select developers" who contacted him personally, Lysyk found.
"What occurred here cannot be described as a standard or defensible process," the independent watchdog charged.
Staff were given the initial criteria by Amato — asked to identify if land could be serviced for infrastructure. The group informed him that the timeline imposed was unworkable so the government agreed to allow the team to explore land sites adjacent to an existing developed urban area.
After it was determined that "most of the proposed sites did not meet that criteria," which is that land would not be in a designated specialty crop area or be part of the green space's most sensitive areas, Clark's top aide made the decision to drop the benchmark. The team "continued to identify the presence of specialty crop and Natural Heritage System designations on proposed sites," Lysyk said, while four sites were altered to live up to the criteria, expanded to reach the edge of the Greenbelt.
At the end, a smaller number of parcels — the majority proposed by Amato — was sent to cabinet for rubber stamping. Lysyk established that the decision to drop the yardsticks was not mentioned to ministers prior to the A-OK, while Team Ford told the auditor that they were "unaware" that only a selection of handpicked sites were assessed rather than other locations that met standards.
The proposal sent to cabinet did not "inform the decision to change the Greenbelt's boundary" nor did it "clearly and correctly" explain how the proposed acreage was "identified, assessed and selected for removal" to Ford and his ministers, the opus detailed. Ford was briefed on the proposed land sites for removal a day before cabinet — though he maintained that "he had not had any conversations with developers" about the government's plans nor did he instruct staff to remove specific acreages carved up.
Ford and Clark both told Lysyk that they were "unaware" that Amato had controlled the selection of removed land sites.
Lysyk isn't having it. "In our view, the housing minister ought to have known,” she told reporters.
The audit also revealed that the carving of the Greenbelt "was not intended to be a one time exercise." According to interviews conducted with senior political staff, including Premier Doug Ford's chief of staff, Patrick Sackville, the intention "was to continue with future land removal from the Greenbelt."
Clark disputed that to Lysyk and told the auditor that "there is no current intention" to prepare for a second round of land swaps.
Lysyk — in what is her last hot audit before her term expires in September — recommended the government "reevaluate" the land swap plan "now that it has the benefit of the information contained in the report."
On his part, Ford isn't backing down.
An intransigent, grin-faced Ford — despite conceding "full responsibility for the need for better process" and accepting the majority of the watchdog's recommendations — dug in, the end justified the means and doubled down on plowing ahead with the government's current game plan.
"What matters to the people of Ontario is making sure they can afford a home, an attainable home, an affordable home," he said.
Ford held ground on not having discussions when asked how a lawyer for connected Tory builder Shakir Rehmatullah — who attended Kayla Ford's wedding — emailed Amato about carving up Greenbelt land in York. "No one, no one knew. No conversation ever, ever was discussed," he insisted.
In a pregame warm up of the Tories' response, caucus boasted the focus on "building" — sharing identical counter messaging on social media with a fresh ad. "We can sit back and ignore Ontario's housing crisis or we can build more homes. Our government is choosing to build," Ford tweeted.
According to a party source, the ballyhoo was not only sent to caucus but to local riding associations — for mandatory sharing. "Usually, these ad blitzes are sent by the Premier's Office. Yesterday's ad blitz was sent out by the party directly," the source explained.
Meanwhile: the Opposition blasted the Tories of "corruption" and a focus on "ensuring their closest, most well connected friends get richer," calling on Clark and Amato to quit — or be ousted.
"I appreciate the confidence that the Premier has in me and my staff," Clark said, with no indication of Amato's departure. "I'm fully committed to the problems in the process that led us here," Clark added.
As for Amato: His email's out of office is turned on. The embattled Tory staffer did not respond to media requests about the probe.
But don't expect him to go anywhere — or at least not for now. "He would've been instructed to proceed by the centre," said one government source, granted anonymity to discuss internal matters. "I think they just had Amato take the fall," the source added. "We don't do things of a magnitude like this without the Premier's Office's backing.
"Somebody should still have been fired for this," texted one insider. "Political staff know they're expendable. It's part of the job."
Internally, Tories are viewing Lysyk's report as "scathing. "I think they're going to say that Lysyk doesn't want us to build more homes," one insider quipped. "Don't know how else they get out of this."
Some, not so much. "At 9 AM this morning, I thought this was a huge existential problem for the government. By 2 PM, I'm not sure the average voter will even remember this happened by Christmas," said the second Tory insider. "Ford is betting that he won't be judged on the process of the Greenbelt changes but he'll be judged in three years by how many homes he gets built."
"A lot of talk about the gas plants today. We're forgetting people went to jail for gas plants and the Liberals went from minority to majority," the source added. "'Scandal' ain't what it used to be."
"I don't think this particular report will be fatal for the government given it's August and most people are tuned out," said one senior Liberal. "The facts reported by Lysyk at face value appear to be quite damning but the police and the Integrity Commissioner will need to determine criminality or that a law was broken for this to become a DEFCON 4 type of scandal."
"Has the Premier's Office lost control or are they having staffers run over to avoid scrutiny?" questioned another Liberal insider. "He needs to shuffle cabinet immediately." Indeed, rumour has it that Premier Ford could unveil a frontbench shakeup in "three to four weeks, before September." Read up on the fresh chitchat.
What's next: The government has agreed to implement the majority of recommendations in the report while the Ontario Provincial Police says it is "aware" of Lysyk's report on the land swap, saying "it will take time" to fully review the document before reaching a verdict on whether to launch a criminal investigation.
"I cannot speculate on when any decision will be made," a spokesperson said, although the force pointed to "no direct evidence" of any crimes in March.
The Integrity Commissioner is also expected to release a report on the Greenbelt land swap. While Lysyk can provide information to the public service — including the provincial police, watchdog J. David Wake is required to refer any criminal activity uncovered to law enforcement.
Recall: Lysyk launched this probe into the Greenbelt carve-up after the three Opposition parties sent a letter in unison requesting an audit "given the strong likelihood of negative impacts on the environment."