Documents show Ford's office, partisan staff involved in municipal boundary move: advocates
Opposition parties say documents echo government's handling of Greenbelt land swaps
Opposition parties say a trove of documents released by environmental groups show Doug Ford's office along with partisan staff may have been involved in a ministry's move to force some municipal boundaries outward against the wishes of some local councils and advocates.
Advocacy groups Environmental Defence and Ecojustice released more than 7,000 pages obtained through freedom of information requests on Monday, detailing how the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing chose to go forward with controversial municipal boundary expansions, official plan policies on how city land should be used and Greenbelt-related changes last year.
CBC Toronto has seen the documents as have the opposition parties.
The groups say based on the documents, the government forced cities such as Hamilton and Ottawa to sprawl against their wishes, making rural land owned by some developers potentially more valuable. That, they say, had a similar effect to when the province opened up areas of the Greenbelt for home development, boosting the collective value of some private properties by an estimated $8.3 billion, according to the auditor general.
NDP leader Marit Stiles said the documents give more weight to the idea that the province approved official plans in a way that favoured some developers over others — something that both the province's auditor general and integrity commissioner found took place as a result of the Greenbelt land swaps.
"I think what this does is it connects us directly back to the Premier's office in a way that we haven't been able to do before," said Stiles.
"At the end of the day, all of those land use decisions, there's a shadow cast over them."
Province rolled back boundary changes
The documents show pushback from some municipalities, Indigenous groups and members of the public of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing's decision to suspend the deadline to accept, and then subsequently revise, the changes in official plans for Niagara, Hamilton, Halton, Waterloo, Peel, York, and Durham Regions.
They detail specific plans to modify, include or exclude different parcels of land in those areas for development. They also show correspondence between ministry staff over some of those decisions — one of which suggest there were directives from Doug Ford's office, Stiles said.
"I understand the advice from the team that the urban systems survey doesn't change anything but po [Premier's Office, according to Ecojustice and Environmental Defence] has asked me for a picture to make sure it's captured," said Ryan Amato, the former chief of staff for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, in an email to other ministry staff in November.
"That to me speaks very clearly to the fact that the premier was much more involved than he has said," said Stiles.
The NDP asked the auditor general's office to investigate the boundary expansions process last month.
Asked for a response on the documents and what advocates and opposition parties claim they show, Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for the premier's office, said the decisions are being reversed.
"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," Clark said in an email to CBC Toronto.
The province has already admitted the process involving these decisions was faulty. New Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra introduced legislation last week that would reverse the changes made to the urban boundaries of some municipalities.
In his review of the previous minister Steve Clark's decisions, Calandra said he was looking at whether they were made in a "manner that maintains and reinforces public trust." He said it "is clear" the changes made "failed to meet that test."
In a news release, Environmental Defence said the u-turns are necessary and welcome but not enough.
"Both the absence of any credible good faith reason for these boundary expansions and lack of transparency regarding how they were made raises serious and lingering concerns as to what influence real estate investors and sprawl developers have at the highest levels of government over our keystone land use planning policies," the group said.
Waive cabinet privilege, expand RCMP investigation: parties
Ecojustice, which filed the freedom of information requests on behalf of Environmental Defence, said the public "deserves to know the truth about the removals."
"The government continues to refuse to disclose a wide range of information about the process that led to the Greenbelt removals and forced urban expansions into greenspace," said lawyer Laura Bowman in a news release.
Many of the documents included in the freedom of information release were redacted. Interim Liberal leader John Fraser called on the Ford government to waive cabinet privilege to provide more transparency on how things happened.
"It's about how this government and how this premier thinks they can do business in the province of Ontario," said Fraser.
Meanwhile, Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said the documents raise "serious questions about the implications for the abuse and misuse of ministerial zoning orders."
That's following fresh scrutiny of how Ford's government issued dozens of fast-track approvals to rezone select properties more than combined previous governments — some of them owned by developers who also stood to benefit from Greenbelt land swaps.
"I would certainly encourage the RCMP to ... broaden the scope of their investigation to include municipal boundary expansions and abuse of ministerial zoning orders," said Schreiner.
While Ford has walked back his plan to remove large swaths of land from the protected Greenbelt following weeks of public pressure and the resignation of two ministers, the RCMP has agreed to launch an investigation into the Greenbelt land swaps.
With files from The Canadian Press