‘No one had preferential treatment,’ Ontario Premier Doug Ford says of Greenbelt developers

Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters that “no one had preferential treatment” when it came to choosing what Greenbelt land would open for development days after a bombshell auditor general’s report suggested the decision making favoured certain developers with ministry access.

The comment was made at a news conference in Mississauga Friday morning, where the premier was announcing that 40 additional supportive housing units will be operational next year.

During the news conference, both the premier and Housing Minister Steve Clark were inundated with questions about the auditor general report, which indicated staff “favoured certain developers” with direct access to the housing ministry. The report also found the process lacked transparency and failed to consider environmental, agricultural and financial impacts of the changes.

“No one had preferential treatment,” Ford told reporters before pivoting to talking points about the housing crisis, which his government has used as the reason for developing the Greenbelt.

“We’re changing it to build homes for people that need it.”

The auditor general’s report, which was released on Wednesday, noted that no evidence could be found to support the claim that removing land from the Greenbelt was needed to meet the government’s housing goals.

The premier and housing minister have argued the provincial housing affordability task force, as well as the other sources of information cited in the report, are over a year and a half old.

Both politicians sidestepped further questions about the report Friday by repeating the fact that their government will be implementing 14 of the 15 recommendations laid out by the auditor general.

The one recommendation they will not be implementing is the re-evaluation of the Greenbelt land removal.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford (left), and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark (right), speak to the media during a press conference following the release of the Auditor General’s Special Report on Changes to the Greenbelt, at Queens Park, in Toronto, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdorey

Ontario’s official opposition requested in a letter sent Friday that the legislature be recalled “immediately” in order to fully address the report.

“Of greatest concern is the need to immediately reinstate Greenbelt protections for the land which was removed through the biased and negligent process overseen by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing,” NDP House Leader John Vanthof wrote to Government House Leader Paul Calandra.

The recall of the legislature would deal primarily with claims that the vast majority of decision making regarding land removal from the Greenbelt was spearheaded by Clark’s chief of staff Ryan Amato, who proposed 14 of the 15 sites that were ultimately removed from the Greenbelt. More than 90 per cent of the land could be tied to three developers.

The owners of the 15 land sites chosen through this process could see more than an $8.3 billion increase in the value of their properties, the report found.

The report also found that Amato implemented a strict three-week timeline for the team of public servants tasked with reviewing sites for removal and altered criteria when it was determined most of the sites would not fit the set parameters.

The government has maintained the quick changes to the Greenbelt were necessary in order to build more housing in the midst of a crisis.

At the recommendation of the auditor general, the Premier’s Office has requested the Ontario integrity commissioner to investigate the way Amato handled the file. A spokesperson has confirmed they are currently reviewing the request.

If the integrity commissioner decides to pursue an investigation, he will look into whether Clark’s chief of staff “acted contrary to the requirements of the Public Service of Ontario Act.”

This includes reviewing potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, the report found that political staff received emails from lobbyists and other external parties on personal email accounts, which were then forwarded to their government emails. There were also instances in which government emails were forwarded to personal accounts, contrary to cybersecurity guidelines.

“Communication between lobbyists and political staff using their personal email accounts also creates the perception of preferential access and treatment, and thereby an unfair advantage to those receiving unauthorized confidential information from political staff,” the report found.

Emails were also “regularly being deleted by political staff,” the auditor general said.

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