Toronto councillor pushes for planning changes that benefit developer despite ties to company
Ethics expert says Di Ciano should have disclosed relationship
Toronto Coun. Justin Di Ciano requested a key change to a planning report last Wednesday that is to the benefit of Etobicoke-based home builder Dunpar Developments Inc. — a developer with which Di Ciano has had personal and professional ties.
Dunpar wants to build 72 townhomes and a three- to four-storey commercial building in an area of Mimico that is currently used predominantly for industrial and commercial purposes. Numbered companies controlled by Dunpar own three properties in the Judson lands, the city's name for the space south of Judson Street, which runs between Royal York Road and Islington Avenue.
In a report, city planners recommended against allowing any new residential development on the site because it sits right beside one of Canada's busiest rail corridors and an expanding Metrolinx train maintenance facility.
The Judson lands, planners said, are as close as nine metres to the massive rail corridor — far less than the 30-metre guidelines adopted by Canadian municipalities in 2013 — something that would create safety and noise concerns if they're developed.
A group of local residents also urged councillors not to rezone the land.
But Di Ciano and other members of Toronto's planning and growth committee voted 4-2 last Wednesday to adopt his request to reject the planners' recommendation. Instead, committee members added Di Ciano's recommendation that the Judson lands be rezoned for mixed use, including residential development.
When asked by CBC's John Lancaster why he wanted the staff report amended, Di Ciano said city planners, Metrolinx planners and the community groups who all opposed rezoning the lands "got it wrong."
"What came through the planning process was flawed," he said. Although the report recommended against building homes beside the rail maintenance facility, Di Ciano claimed "we've been developing next to rail yards for the last 25 years, intensely."
Later in an email, the councillor added that rezoning the land to allow mixed use would also help create more commercial space and jobs.
Councillor's brother worked for Dunpar
His twin brother, Julien Di Ciano, worked as a project manager for Dunpar starting in 2008 and also sometimes acted as the company's spokesperson.
When asked last Wednesday why he voted, Di Ciano told CBC News his brother doesn't work there anymore. In the past, the councillor has stated he would abstain from voting on issues related to the developer.
Di Ciano's lawyer repeated that claim in an email to CBC News, saying Julien Di Ciano left Dunpar in July 2015 and that the councillor "never voted on any such applications while his brother worked for Dunpar."
However, CBC News has discovered that Justin Di Ciano voted on another Dunpar application — this time before Etobicoke York Community Council — in January 2015. In that instance his vote was to the benefit of Dunpar and in line with city staff recommendations.
CBC News has also learned that in January 2009, before Di Ciano was elected, he and a family member closed a deal to purchase a newly built townhome in a Dunpar development in Etobicoke. Land-registry records show they paid $434,149.
Di Ciano sold the townhome May 2 for $856,500. It is one of only a handful that overlook a small park in the development and the sale price set a record for the complex.
Dunpar named in Di Ciano audit
Auditors identified at least 12 apparent violations of the Municipal Elections Act, two of which were related to unreported campaign spending connected to Dunpar.
The first concerned a letter distributed to some Ward 5 residents in which Dunpar executive Mark Mintzer described Di Ciano as "the best possible candidate to bring this community to the next level."
Auditors found Di Ciano's campaign didn't report the cost of printing and distributing the Dunpar endorsement. When asked by auditors to explain the discrepancy, Di Ciano stated the Dunpar executive acted without authorization from the campaign. But the auditors determined Di Ciano was "not forthcoming" about his brother's employment with Dunpar.
Auditors from Froese Forensic Partners also found that Di Ciano's campaign used a charity's name to rent a school gym for a campaign event. The gym was booked under the name of PACT Urban Peace Alliance — a charity that is located in a Dunpar building. Dunpar owner John Zanini sits on PACT's board of directors.
The $727 cost was picked up by Di Ciano's brother but went unreported in what was deemed an "apparent contravention" of the Municipal Elections Act. Despite the report's findings, the city's audit committee decided not to take action against Di Ciano.
In an email to CBC News, Di Ciano's lawyer said the councillor never accepted the Dunpar endorsement and that he "lost that election and contributes that unwarranted endorsement for the reason he lost."
Later, during the 2014 campaign, Di Ciano co-founded the Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women's Empowerment in Etobicoke. The centre is part of PACT and is located in the same Dunpar building.
Di Ciano's lawyer minimized Dunpar's involvement with PACT, saying that PACT founder David Lockett is "solely responsible for strategic direction." CBC News has discovered that Lockett has also acted as a leasing agent for some of Dunpar's commercial properties.
Councillor claims integrity commissioner cleared him
Asked last Wednesday at city hall if he was worried about a potential conflict of interest, Di Ciano dismissed the findings of the auditors' report as "rumours" and told CBC News he spoke to the city's integrity commissioner about his past involvement with Dunpar and that he is "not in a conflict as per the rules of engagement."
As to whether he specifically disclosed his Dunpar home purchase to the commissioner, he replied, "I don't remember, it was 18 months ago. But I did purchase a home just like any other resident of Etobicoke."
When pressed on whether he is concerned about an apparent conflict of interest, Di Ciano replied, "No I'm not. This is one of the largest land owners in Ward 5. And if you think I'm going to sit on the sidelines while they come in and develop, it's just not going to happen. And my residents are very much aware of the situation."
The Office of the Integrity Commissioner told CBC News it cannot reveal what, if any, instruction it has given to city councillors.
Trevor Farrow is the associate dean and a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School who specializes in legal ethics. He says Di Ciano did nothing wrong with the Dunpar home purchase or doing charity work with Dunpar. However, Farrow believes Di Ciano should have disclosed all of his prior dealings with the developer at the committee meeting and likely should have recused himself from the vote.
"These are the kinds of things where, even if not an actual conflict, the perceived conflict of interest is as important for confidence in the municipal process" he said.
Planning staff: Judson lands too close to rail lines for homes
During Wednesday's meeting, Councillors Di Ciano, David Shiner, Christin Carmichael Greb and John Campbell voted to support the amendments. Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and John Filion voted instead to support the original recommendations by city planners.
The study, called the Mimico-Judson Secondary Plan, took three years and cost $200,000.
It found the Judson lands would be as close as nine metres to the busy freight and commuter rail lines. Planners also noted that the Judson lands are within 30 metres of the Metrolinx Willowbrook train-maintenance facility and that guidelines recommend new homes should not be built within 300 metres of such facilities.
At last Wednesday's planning and growth committee meeting, a local residents' group urged the councillors not to rezone the lands, saying people who live farther away from the facility and across the street from the proposed townhome complex often complain about noise and vibration. The 16-cylinder, 4,000 horse power diesel locomotives need to idle through the night at the maintenance facility when temperatures dip below -5 C.
The staff report explains the Metrolinx facility will also expand to a 24-hour-a-day operation.
Speaking generally about the the Judson lands, Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins told CBC News that "people have to realize a lot more trains will be passing through there every hour. It's going to be very noisy, lights on 24/7 for security reasons, and we want people to know that."
Note: PACT's website was updated in the past few days to say that the Jean Augustine Centre is now operated solely by Jean Augustine.
John Lancaster can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-205-7538