Ford Cronyism on display in scathing AG report on Greenbelt Grab

The housing situation in Ontario has become a source of intense controversy, sparking calls from opposition parties for the province's housing minister and the premier to step down. The catalyst behind this demand was a recent audit overseen by Bonnie Lysk, the auditor general of Ontario. The audit shed light on perceived biases and favoritism within the government's strategy for developing the Greenbelt.

At the heart of the audit was the government's proposal to earmark 15 regions within the protected Greenbelt for the construction of 50,000 homes. This plan drew significant attention, particularly due to prior reports suggesting that certain developers, who coincidentally were donors to the Progressive Conservative party, acquired Greenbelt land plots despite the province's commitment to conserving these areas.

In February 2023, a jointly produced report from The Narwhal and the Toronto Star exposed a controversial land development scheme in Ontario involving Greenbelt land removal and potential financial gains for developers connected to the Progressive Conservative Party. The investigation reveals that a company led by a prominent Ontario developer, Michael Rice, bought land worth $80 million within the protected Greenbelt in September. The Ontario government subsequently listed these properties, located in King Township, for removal from the Greenbelt, potentially leading to their profitable development.

Of the 15 areas proposed for Greenbelt removal, eight include properties purchased since Doug Ford's election in 2018. Donations records suggest that some of the developers who stand to benefit have financially supported Ford's party. The investigation raised questions about the timing of the landowners' investments and the integrity of the decision-making process. The move has prompted concerns about the broader impact on the Greenbelt's ecological integrity and the implications of setting a precedent for developers seeking land removal.

Marit Stiles, leader of the Ontario NDP, spearheaded the push for Lysk's audit. She expressed her dissatisfaction with the situation, stating, "The situation at hand is indefensible and raises numerous questions. If the premier or the minister admit to gross incompetence or deliberate ignorance, that's one thing. Otherwise, it's clear that these decisions align with the interests of [Progressive] Conservative Party supporters."

The implications of the audit unearthed a scenario where specific individuals could profit, leading some to perceive corruption. The audit disclosed that out of the 15 land parcels removed from the Greenbelt, 14 were designated in a span of just three weeks by Ryan Amato, the Chief of Staff to Housing Minister Steve Clark, although Amato was not explicitly named in the report.

The potential for the marked land's value to increase by up to $8.3 billion prompted the report to recommend referring the case to the Integrity Commissioner for a potential breach of the Ontario Public Service Act by Amato.

The aftermath of the audit amplified calls for accountability. MPP Fraser, interim leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, expressed doubt that Minister Clark's Chief of Staff acted independently, noting, "It's implausible that Minister Clark's Chief of Staff made decisions without the Minister's awareness or direction."

Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, leveraged the audit findings to critique Premier Doug Ford, suggesting that the report reflects a disregard for the general public. Schreiner emphasized the perception that Ford seemed willing to disregard norms to favor a select group of wealthy and well-connected developers at the expense of others.

Amidst the ensuing controversy, both Premier Doug Ford and Housing Minister Steve Clark refuted allegations of government-mediated communication with developers regarding Greenbelt housing plans. While admitting to flaws in the developer selection process, they pledged improvements for the future.

During a joint news conference, Ford and Clark acknowledged the need for enhancements in their approach. Minister Clark assumed personal responsibility, stating, "I acknowledge the room for improvement in our approach. It's my responsibility as the minister to devise a better strategy for the benefit of Ontarians."

Concurrently, the 2023 budget paints a different picture for Ontario's housing aspirations. The budget data indicates that the province is already off-target in its endeavor to build 1.5 million homes within the next decade. The projections suggest approximately 80,000 new housing starts per year over the next three years, falling considerably short of the required figure.

In contrast, 2022 witnessed the construction of 96,000 new homes, marking the second-highest number since 1988. Officials highlight that the budget projections are solely based on private sector data and exclude potential future policies or measures aimed at bridging the gap.

Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy remains optimistic, asserting, "We're unwavering in our determination to promote housing development across the province." However, Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles expresses skepticism, stating, "This government has no housing plan." She adds that it's deeply concerning that the housing starts are significantly behind, indicating a considerable gap between the province's goals and its actual progress.

In a province where the average house price is nearly $800,000 this amounts to a near trillion dollar proposal. Even were 1.5 million homes actually completed, the chances are good that a supply glut could drop the bottom out of the housing market, bursting "the bubble" a move which critics say would allow unscrupulous real estate investment trusts and other types of corporate landlords to buy up and permanently privatize Ontario's devalued housing supply, effectively enriching themselves with the lost value of homes owned by workers.

In effect a plan to force 1.5 million homes on municipalites, who in many cases say they can't even provide basic services, could result in a forced transfer of generational or even community wealth from workers to groups, communities and families with ties to the Ford government and PC party. Private corporations who liase between different levels of government on infrastructure and survey issues, have already been called in to help facilitate the infrastructure planning process for municipalities.

Following reports that provincial appointees and a lobbyist were present at Premier Doug Ford's daughter's wedding, Ontario's Opposition demanded a full investigation by the province's integrity commissioner into the event and the $150-per-person stag and doe that preceded it. Earlier in 2023, NDP leader Marit Stiles submitted the request to the integrity commissioner, J. David Wake, urging an inquiry into whether Ford breached ethics laws.

While it remains uncertain whether Wake will proceed with the investigation, Stiles highlighted details surrounding developers and lobbyists with ties to Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario PC Party being included in the events, raising concerns about conflicts of interest. The commissioner's previous opinion, issued based on information provided by Ford's office, returned an opinion that Ford hadn't violated the Members' Integrity Act.

Stiles' request asked for a more comprehensive assessment, examining potential breaches of conflict of interest, influence, and receiving gifts. This saga casts a spotlight on Ford's conduct, prompting discussions on the ethical standards for public officials and their connections with developers and lobbyists. At least three of the developers identified in the AG's report as having benefitted, were present at Ford's daughter's wedding.

In response to the report which some onlookers have called 'scathing', the Ontario Federation of Labour has issued a strongly worded petition calling for Ford's resignation. It remains to be seen whether organized labour, or average Ontarians, will be outraged enough about the revelations of cronyism and corruption to do more than put their name on a mailing list.

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