More evidence emerges premier’s office involved in picking properties for development
Premier Doug Ford has long insisted that he and his office was not involved in picking which Greenbelt and rural properties to approve for housing development, but there's growing evidence calling that claim into question.
The narrative from Ford and his officials since early August has been that all blame for both the Greenbelt debacle and the government's moves to force cities to sprawl lies with the former housing minister Steve Clark and his top political staffer.
But newly revealed government documents show the premier's office was directly interested in the status of certain parcels of land and that Ford himself met with a developer on the very topic of removing his land from the Greenbelt.
Despite that, Ford is doubling down on the denials.
"I had nothing to do with the changes in the Greenbelt," Ford said Tuesday during his first news conference in nearly six weeks, at a gas station in Etobicoke.
Ford also denied he was involved in any changes the government imposed on municipalities that boosted the value of rural properties and said he can't remember meeting a developer about approving his Greenbelt land for housing.
Here's what the paper trail shows:
Ford met face-to-face with Hamilton developer Sergio Manchia and discussed removing his land from the Greenbelt. The meeting took place in September 2021, a year before Ford's government removed restrictions from Manchia's and 14 other Greenbelt properties.
The premier's office wanted confirmation in November 2022 that two specific properties in Nobleton partly owned by Flato Developments were being approved for development. The company's founder Shakir Rehmatullah is a friend of the premier and was a guest at Ford's daughter's wedding in the summer of 2022.
During Tuesday's news conference, reporters questioned Ford about these new revelations.
"I don't even have a clue which land you're talking about," he said when asked why his political staff were concerned about the Nobleton properties.
"You're asking me to remember what I did or said two years ago, I can't," Ford said when asked about his Greenbelt meeting with the Hamilton developer.
The newly released documents matter because they appear to suggest that political staff in Ford's office were directly involved in at least some of the government's 2022 decisions to greenlight certain properties for development.
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That prompts the question: Were Ford's hand-picked political staff acting alone, or were they acting on the wishes of the premier?
"The rot goes all the way to the top," said Marit Stiles, leader of the Ontario NDP. "These documents make it more clear than ever that all roads lead to the premier."
'No way the premier didn't know'
John Fraser, interim leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, cited his own experience as political staff in a premier's office in rejecting Ford's denials.
"There is no way that the premier didn't know. No way," said Fraser. "Maybe he doesn't know every little intricate detail but he knows the big stuff. That's the way it works."
The newly-released documents come from some 7,000 pages obtained by the groups Environmental Defence and Ecojustice through a freedom of information request.
They detail the inside story of the government's moves in the fall of 2022 to approve housing development on certain properties in the Greenbelt and to force changes in the official plans of Hamilton and Ottawa as well as Peel, York and Halton regions.
Many of the documents consist of emails between political staff and non-partisan bureaucrats on selecting properties for removal from the Greenbelt or expanding city boundaries to open up more rural land for development.
The documents are sprinkled with references to "PO" – shorthand for premier's office – in the days leading up to the official rollout of changes to land use rules in November 2022.
"PO wants this done," says a document that recommends allowing development on 29 hectares of land in the Oak Ridges Moraine previously classed as countryside.
An email from the housing minister's chief of staff Ryan Amato about approving the Nobleton properties for development says "po has asked me for a picture to make sure."
"Hi… I hate to do this… but this was sent to us from someone at PO," says an email from the housing minister's deputy chief of staff, asking for changes to the Peel Region official plan.
"Staff members who were involved in these decisions, both in the premier's office and minister's office, are no longer employed by the government," said Ford's spokesperson Caitlin Clark in a statement provided to CBC News.
Meanwhile, Ford's meeting on Sept. 20, 2021 with the Hamilton developer is revealed in an email to Ford's executive assistant from an official at Manchia's firm, Urban Solutions.
The email says Ford "agreed to pursue" Manchia's request to remove Greenbelt protections from his property at Barton Street and Fifty Road in Hamilton for development.
The meeting took place at a $1,200-per-ticket PC Party fundraiser that Manchia hosted at his home in Ancaster, according to a statement issued Tuesday by Urban Solutions.
Developer spoke 'briefly' with Ford about Greenbelt
"During the event, Mr. Manchia spoke briefly about this property with the Premier. But it was nothing new," said the company's statement. "It was only the latest in a multi-year effort, asking both the previous government and Mr. Ford's government to rectify what we and Hamilton Council felt was a mistake."
The statement added that Ford has called Manchia "a few times over the years, but on each occasion, it was only to briefly thank him for his support. In none of those calls did they ever discuss planning issues."
Ford's government removed the Greenbelt restrictions from the property in November 2022.
Ontario's Integrity Commissioner reported in his Greenbelt investigation that Ford said "he had no recollection of meeting [Manchia], having any telephone or other conversations with him about the Greenbelt, or communicating to any staff about Mr. Manchia."
In response to CBC News's questions about the meeting, Ford's spokesperson said in an email, "Neither the premier or the premier's office was part of any specific site selection."
On Tuesday, Ford pointed to the investigations of both the integrity commissioner and the auditor general as evidence that he did not direct the removal of any land from the Greenbelt.
"They cleared my office, cleared myself, said we had no involvement in it," Ford told the news conference.
Integrity commissioner J. David Wake rejected the notion that Ford's officials were driving decisions on which Greenbelt parcels to approve for development.
"I have found that the Premier's Office staff were not providing such direction," said Wake's report. "The Premier's Office was kept in the dark by Mr. Amato as to the process he drove for the selection of properties to be removed from the Greenbelt until very near the end."
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk did not specifically pass judgment on Ford's involvement in her Greenbelt report. In the news conference that followed its release, a reporter asked whether she believed that Ford had no knowledge of what went on. "I have no reason not to," Lysyk replied.
In September, Ford apologized for breaking his promise not to touch the Greenbelt and said the government will scrap its approvals for housing in the protected area.
Despite that U-turn, an RCMP unit that specializes in political cases of corruption and breach of trusts has launched a criminal investigation into the original plan to open up Greenbelt land for development.
In October, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra announced the government is reversing another of its controversial moves to open more land for housing: boundary expansions and zoning changes it forced on 12 municipalities, including Ottawa, Hamilton and Waterloo Region.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.
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