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Ontario Greenbelt removals
Ontario housing minister resigns
Report regarding the Honourable Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario, August 30, 2023.
Special report on changes to the Greenbelt. Office of the Auditor General of Ontario, August 9, 2023.
Steve Clark, Ontario's housing minister, resigned on Monday over the $8 billion Greenbelt removals, four days after the integrity commissioner’s report describing him as having his “head in the sand.”
When the Ford government announced the decision to remove some land from the Greenbelt, it turned out that the land had been purchased quite recently (resulting in a giant windfall for the buyers), so naturally people wondered if the buyers had been tipped off. In fact it turned out that they bought the land first, then asked the Ford government to remove the land from the Greenbelt, which increased its value by about $8 billion.
The integrity commissioner’s report provides a detailed description of what happened.
After the June 2022 election, the ministerial mandate letters (which the Ford government has made secret) were written up, and for Clark, they said that he should lay out a process for taking land out of the Greenbelt - a significant reversal from the previous term.
Clark’s new chief of staff was Ryan Amato, appointed by the premier's office. Amato said he'd take care of it. He then went away and didn't come back until a week before cabinet was briefed. And then Clark didn't ask Amato any questions about the process: he just rubber-stamped the proposal and brought it to cabinet.
Amato was giving the impression to the civil service that Clark or Ford wanted specific pieces of land removed from the Greenbelt, and giving the impression to Clark that the civil service was recommending the removals. In fact the direction was coming straight from the landowners to Amato.
I thought the following general principle was particularly interesting: a political staffer can only act on behalf of a minister. They can't direct public servants on their own, which is what Amato was doing (as described by the report in great detail).
 One of the research papers supporting the Gomery Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities examined the tension that can exist between a minister’s political staff including a chief of staff (referred to at that time as exempt staff) and the public servants working in a department (or a ministry provincially). A Privy Council Office document states that “exempt staff do not have authority to give direction to public servants but they can ask for information or transmit the Minister’s instructions, normally through the Deputy Minister.” ...
 The only time direction should flow from political staff to public servants, including a deputy minister, is when it is clear that the political staff is acting in the role of proxy for the minister or the government. With this in mind, I noted the frequent references in the evidence of the public servants at this inquiry as having received direction from Mr. Amato. They actually believed that he was filling a proxy role from the Premier’s Office or, in one case, from Premier Ford himself.
So then who was talking to Amato?
One person, labelled “Mr. X” by the integrity commissioner’s report, had an illegal lobbying arrangement. He’s also not registered as a lobbyist.
 The contract with Mr. X’s company says it was made as of August 9, 2022. Section four of the contract indicates that he was to be paid a monthly fee of $6,000 per month and an additional “Greenbelt Fee” and “Rezoning Fee”, on the following terms:
(a) The Greenbelt Fee shall be the amount of $225,000 and shall be earned, but not paid, once final approval has been obtained from any relevant government party for the removal of the Lands from the Greenbelt; and
(b) The Rezoning Fee shall be the amount of $775,000 and shall be earned, but not paid once final approval has been obtained for the Lands to be developed for residential housing in a manner satisfactory to the Company.
The Greenbelt Fee shall be paid within 120 days following the date the final appeal period to remove the lands from the Greenbelt (for any reason) expires. The Rezoning Fee shall be paid within 120 days following the date the final appeal period for rezoning the Lands (for any reason) expires.
It should be noted that section 3.2 of the Lobbyists Registration Act, 1998 [“LRA”] prohibits lobbying when payment is contingent on the degree of success in lobbying.
The integrity commissioner has a comment saying that Amato’s initial responses when asked about Mr. X were not very believable (“strains credulity somewhat”).
So who is Mr. X? Apparently it’s John Mutton, former mayor of Clarington. His consulting firm, Municipal Solutions, seems small-time rather than corporate (judging from its website). The image of its chief financial officer, one Phoenix Kiss, went viral.
What happens next?
The new housing minister is Paul Calandra. Doug Ford announced that they're going to re-examine the removals as part of a larger review. Ontario will 're-evaluate' sites in Greenbelt land swap as part of sweeping review, Ford says.
Monday's Curse of Politics podcast, with David Herle, Scott Reid, Jordan Leichnitz, and Kory Teneycke, was recorded shortly after Clark’s resignation. I thought Scott Reid (a very colourful speaker) summarized the situation pretty well: with $8 billion at stake, this issue isn’t going away.
I'm sorry, Kory, you're sitting right there, it feels weird. But this is so uncharacteristic of the Ford government's issues management style. Forget the first year, forget the Dean French alternate universe in which the Ford government operated for the first year, before people said, Jesus Christ, we've got to get in a time machine and fucking butterfly-effect our way out of this government!
Since that point, when Ford hits trouble, he'll spend a couple days, like all political leaders, going no, no, it's not a problem, no no no, stop, you know you're wrong, I'm right. And then he'll just get up one day and go, all right everybody else is right, I'm wrong, golly gee willikers, folks, I'm so sorry, I got it wrong, and you know what, we're gonna try to do the right thing, and reverse his course completely. And that usually stems it.
And then he also has the added benefit that everybody thinks he's kind of the A&W Root Beer bear and kind of too dumb to really run the government, therefore too dumb to be accountable. And therefore they go, well, shit you know it wasn't really his fault, he didn't really know what was going on, and at least he's doing the right thing by apologizing. And so he skates away on this stuff.
This is not what they've done. This drip drip drip of, we're not going to let Amato resign - Amato’s resigning. We're not gonna fire Steve Clark - Steve Clark gets fired. This drip drip drip is uncharacteristic of the way the government handles this. And inarguably this is the most serious challenge that it's faced. And I have a suspicion, that's because of this 8.3 BILLION FUCKING DOLLARS that's at the middle of it.
And so when you say to people, sorry, the only way to actually stem this tide is to reverse that process, initiate a new process, have some independent arbiter that allows you to demonstrate that it's legitimate, transparent. That's going to open up to a lot of lawyering, and you're gonna get sued. And I'm sure the ministry of the Attorney General is saying, well we don't have a shaky leg to stand on, so we're going to get pounded.
And they don't want to do it politically, and so on and so forth, but I think that's the inevitable outcome of this. I think if you rush to the end, either very soon the premier recognizes that Amato and Clark's resignations are insufficient to quell this storm, therefore he'll have to reverse the process, and re-adjudicate those parcels of land. I think you can still try to hang on. But if he chooses not to do that, he'll just do it in the end and he'll just suffer more damage.
And at some point, I don't know when, it's alchemy, it's witchcraft, but at some point, words cronyism and corruption, stick to you. Especially when people are talking about million dollar success fees and the likes of Mr X and Phoenix Kiss. So that's where I think this goes, I just don't know how quickly it goes. I think inevitably, they're going to have to completely eat themselves and reverse the policy.
The most recent Ontario election was in June 2022 (with the Conservatives winning a majority, the NDP second, and the Liberals in third place). The next scheduled election is in 2026.
After the 2022 election, Andrea Horwath stepped down as leader of the Ontario NDP (she’s now mayor of Hamilton). Marit Stiles is the new leader of the Ontario NDP, elected by acclamation.
Steven Del Duca also stepped down as leader of the Ontario Liberals (he’s now mayor of Vaughan). There’s a leadership contest going on right now - the deadline to sign up to vote is coming up soon.
Bonnie Crombie is currently mayor of Mississauga, where NIMBYism appears to be strong. The other four candidates all support more housing.
A particularly eye-opening proposal: Yasir Naqvi is proposing to eliminate municipal development charges on new housing, replacing this revenue with provincial transfers. Mike Collins-Williams on Twitter.
In the fundraising race, Crombie is way out front, with Erskine-Smith in second place.
If you live in Ontario, you’re 14 or older, and you want to vote in the leadership race, here’s the signup link for the Ontario Liberals. The deadline is next Monday, September 11. Or if you already know who you want to support, you can sign up through the website for that candidate.