Housing Minister Steve Clark’s former Chief of Staff effectively gave developers a heads up about the government’s plans to remove lands from the Greenbelt, Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner found.
In the report released on Wednesday, the Integrity Commissioner detailed interviews conducted with the Chief of Staff, Ryan Amato, where he insisted he was careful to never confirm to developers that the government was going to reopen the Greenbelt for development.
“He said he would say ‘no decisions on Greenbelt removals have been made,'” the report says of Amato’s conversations with landowners.
Amato, however, “took active steps to obtain information from certain developers or their representatives, including legal descriptions and shapefiles,” the Integrity Commissioner wrote. In one instance, Amato “even attended the office of one of the developers to receive a package and review the features of that developer’s land with him.”
“I find that these actions were tantamount to Mr. Amato saying the words he had been careful not to say,” the report says. “Developers may be congenitally optimistic… but they are not stupid. When they were met with this kind of interest in their properties from the Minister’s Chief of Staff, which was in stark contrast to what they had been told for the whole of the government’s first term, I find that it was reasonable for someone such as Mr. Rice to conclude, as he did, that ‘they were looking at the Greenbelt.'”
This was made in reference to Michael Rice, head of the Rice Group of Companies, a Markham-based developer, who has long advocated for opening up the Greenbelt for development and had land removed from Greenbelt protections.
According to the report, Rice said that the government had, since being elected in 2018, “taken steps to indicate to him the ‘writing was on the wall’ that lands in the Greenbelt would be opened for development.”
In December 2021, Rice asked his staff to identify potential land acquisitions in the Greenbelt that met specified criteria, the report says. Five months later, he entered into an agreement to purchase a 687-acre property in King Township — 522 acres of which were later removed from the Greenbelt.
One day before the closing of the sale, Rice spoke with Amato at a dinner put on by BILD and made him aware of the land and its potential for development if removed from Greenbelt protections. A few days later, Amato called Rice, asking him to put together a package of information on the site. Amato then met with Rice at his office in late September to pick up the package and discuss the land.
Rice was “adamant that no one tipped him off” prior to purchasing the lands, and that “if, by 2022, a developer was not thinking about the Greenbelt opening up ‘they were asleep.’”
He pointed to several government decisions as indicators of this, including the 2019 More Homes, More Choices Act, of which he said, “that was the beginning of the smashing of the conservation authority which changes your perspective on land.” He did, however, say Amato’s inquiry and visit told him “they were looking at the Greenbelt.”
In October, Rice entered into an agreement to purchase a Greenbelt property near the Gormley GO station — one that he had been in discussions with the owner about developing. He denied discussing this property with anyone in the provincial government, and it was not one of the lands selected for removal from the Greenbelt. But according to the Integrity Commissioner, that is beside the point.
“The fact that the Gormley property was not removed or redesignated does not change the fact that information from Mr. Amato was sought to be used to further a private interest,” the report reads.
The Mysterious Mr. X
In another instance, the report includes an email from a consultant, referred to as Mr. X, who was working for Greenbelt landowner Peter Tanenbaum. In the email, dated September 18, Mr. X says he is meeting Amato and another staffer for lunch and will be taking them golfing and to a Raptors game in two weeks.
In October, Mr. X sent an email to Tanenbaum saying Amato had asked for a legal description of his Greenbelt lands.
During the inquiry, Amato said he could not remember having done anything for any of Mr. X’s clients and said he didn’t show up to the meeting with Mr. X and did not even remember being invited to lunch. The time of the lunch, however, was blocked off on Amato’s calendar and marked as “private.” He also denied ever going golfing or to a Raptors game with Mr. X.
The staffer who did attend the lunch, Kirsten Jensen, said it took place on September 27 at Joey Eaton Centre. She denied discussing anything Greenbelt-related but said that Mr. X gave her a handout, which she did not look at, and asked that it be given to Amato.
A “Seriously Flawed” Process
The Integrity Commissioner’s report reiterates what was laid out in the Auditor General’s report released earlier this month — that the land selection process was biased and indefensible. The Integrity Commissioner called it “seriously flawed.”
“Given the limitations of the selection process, it cannot be argued that the properties selected for removal were objectively better than other properties which were not considered,” the report says.
The report also says the process was “unfair to those landowners who had an interest in seeing their lands removed and who were unaware of the potential change to the government’s Greenbelt policy.”
“The chaos surrounding this process led to an uninformed and opaque decision which resulted in the creation of an opportunity to further the private interest of some developers improperly,” the report adds.
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who called for the Integrity Commissioner’s investigation, asked for a review of political contributions made to the Ontario PC Party by nine of the developers who benefitted from the Greenbelt land swap. The Integrity Commissioner, however, found these donations to be “a drop in the bucket” of what the Ontario PC Party collects, noting that political donations can be both hard to draw conclusions from and overplayed.
“I am not at all confident that the political donations weighed very much, if at all, in the madcap method by which Mr. Amato accumulated properties to be removed from the Greenbelt.”
Blame For Clark
The new 166-page report goes beyond pointing the finger at Amato, as the Auditor General report did, and places substantial blame on Clark for the questionable land selection process.
Since the release of the Auditor General’s report, Clark has seemingly hidden behind a defence of not being involved in the selection process and being unaware of Amato’s actions — something the Integrity Commissioner says he believes. However, he points to this as a key problem.
“Minister Clark played a limited role in the design of the process leading. up to the selection of sites to be removed, but that is precisely the problem in this case as he should have been more aware of what was going on in his ministry and how the process contemplated by the mandate letter was unfolding,” the report says.
Accordingly, Clark was found to have violated multiple sections of the Members’ Integrity Act for his failure to properly oversee the land selection process.
“He made the decision to withdraw from the supervision and direction of this highly significant initiative within his ministry, leaving it to his recently appointed chief of staff who had never served in that capacity before and who was admittedly ‘drinking from a firehose’ trying to grasp all of his new responsibilities,” the report says.
It goes on to say that Clark took the proposal to cabinet without having questioned Amato or the Deputy Minister, despite flags having been raised in both the draft submission reviewed with Clark in October and the final submission brought to cabinet in November. The latter, signed by Clark, said that the government should anticipate criticism from stakeholders, other landowners, and the public about the lack of transparency, process, and criteria, and that the process may be viewed as “unscientific and partisan.”
“In the circumstances, Minister Clark needed to ask more questions,” the report says.