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Reprimand housing minister over Greenbelt land swap: Ontario integrity watchdog

Ontario's Integrity Commissioner is recommending that Housing Minister Steve Clark be reprimanded for his role in the province's contentious Greenbelt land swap, calling it a "rushed and flawed process" marred by a "lack of oversight."

Commissioner says Steve Clark 'did not question or properly oversee' staffer's selection process

Steve Clark, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, speaks to journalists at the Queens Park Legislature, in Toronto on Wednesday, November 16, 2022. Clark offered an emphatic denial today that he tipped off developers ahead of announcing changes to the Greenbelt.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Ontario's Integrity Commissioner is recommending that Housing Minister Steve Clark be reprimanded for his role in the province's contentious Greenbelt land swap, calling it a "rushed and flawed process" marred by a "lack of oversight."

Despite that, Premier Doug Ford's office said Clark will keep his job and said nothing of a potential sanction.

In a report issued Wednesday afternoon, J. David Wake said Clark failed to properly oversee the process that led to protected Greenbelt lands being selected for housing development, leading to the private interests of certain developers to seep into the project.

"Minister Clark's lack of oversight led to some developers being alerted to a potential change in the government's position on the Greenbelt, resulting in their private interests being furthered improperly," Wake wrote on his office's website. You can read Wake's full report at the bottom of this story.

Ontario created the Greenbelt in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development. Last year, the province took 2,995 hectares of land out of the Greenbelt to build 50,000 homes and replaced it with about 3,000 acres elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the province's auditor general released a scathing report that showed property developers with close ties to the government influenced the decision to open up the Greenbelt to their benefit. The fallout has triggered the resignation of the housing minister's chief of staff, Ryan Amato, and the RCMP is considering launching an investigation into the matter.

Process was unfair, IC says

Wake said his report established that Amato was the "driving force for the process" for which lands were selected for housing development, and that Clark "misinterpreted" a mandate letter in relation to the Greenbelt — especially when it came to what was expected and by when — which "led Mr. Amato to embark on a rushed and flawed process.

"This 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," Wake wrote, adding that supervision of staff is a minister's responsibility.

"Minister Clark did not question or properly oversee Mr. Amato's selection process before the matter was presented to cabinet," he wrote.

WATCH | NDP leader issues new call for housing minister's resignation:

Ontario housing minister must resign over Greenbelt land swap, opposition leader says

2 hours ago

Duration 1:02

'We need to call it what it is: corruption,' Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said following a report from the province's integrity commissioner that found Housing Minister Steve Clark failed to properly oversee the process that led to protected Greenbelt lands being selected for housing development.

Ford's office issued a statement Wednesday afternoon that did not address the call for a reprimand. Instead, it said Clark would remain in his role.

"Minister Clark will continue to work towards delivering on our promise to build at least 1.5 million homes and ensure public trust and confidence is maintained every step of the way," the statement reads.

"We've acknowledged areas where we need to improve; the Integrity Commissioner reiterated that today, and we'll continue to work to strengthen the process moving forward."

Clark also released his own short statement, which echoed the one issued by Ford's office pledging a commitment to build housing.

"As minister, the buck stops with me and I accept the Integrity Commissioner's findings," Clark said. "There were clear flaws in the process that led to today's report.

"I am fully committed to fulfilling our government's promise to build at least 1.5 million homes and will ensure the process is done with integrity and trust."

The mandate letter mentioned in the integrity commissioner's report is of particular interest, as Ford's government has been fighting to keep his mandate letters shielded from public scrutiny since shortly after he was first elected nearly five years ago.

According to the report, Ford sent a mandate letter to Clark in June of last year with a lengthy "to do" list, which included direction to "work to codify processes forswaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt," as well as a review of the mandate of the Greenbelt Council and Greenbelt Foundation, and a plan to expand and protect the Greenbelt.

Wake's report has prompted fresh criticism from Opposition parties, which have been hammering the government for weeks over the controversy.

Calls for resignation persist

NDP Leader Marit Stiles once again called for Clark's resignation Wednesday while speaking with reporters at Queen's Park.

"We've been calling for that for three weeks since the auditor general's report was released. Now it's time that the premier needs to do his job, and kick him out of cabinet. Enough is enough," she said.

"The premier is more concerned about these developers losing out on this deal than he is about the trust of Ontarians, and what we've seen over the last few weeks is one of the greatest breaches of trust in the history of the province of Ontario."

Both Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner and Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser echoed that sentiment in their own statements.

"Minister Steve Clark must resign — or the Premier has an obligation to fire him," Schreiner said.

"Minister Clark has broken the Integrity Act and lost the trust of the public. He must resign," Fraser added.

See the integrity commissioner's report here:

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Need to catch up on the Greenbelt story? Here's some of what's happened in recent weeks:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

    With files from John Rieti

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