“There was preferential treatment for developers”: Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk on her scathing Greenbelt report

“There was preferential treatment for developers”: Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk on her scathing Greenbelt report

Lysyk’s investigation found that the Ford government’s decision to remove land from the Greenbelt was heavily influenced by a small group of developers who stand to turn a big profit. Here, she breaks down what that means

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, who just released a scathing report on the Ford government's handling of the Greenbelt

Last week, Ontario’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, released a damning report on the Ford government’s decision to remove 7,400 acres of protected land from the Greenbelt in order to build 50,000 homes. Lysyk found that the decision-making process was heavily influenced by a small group of developers, including Silvio De Gasperis and Michael Rice, who stand to make upward of $8.3 billion from the removal of the land’s protected status. Both De Gasperis and Rice went to court to fight summons to speak with Lysyk during her investigation.

The torrent of criticism that followed Ford’s announcement of the Greenbelt land swap last year has now turned into a full-blown tidal wave. Opposition critics have suggested that Ford himself tipped off developers about the land removal and personally profited. Amid mounting calls for Ford’s resignation, the Ontario Provincial Police are considering launching their own investigation into the matter.

In a tense press conference, Ford vehemently denied that he’d personally benefited from the land removal, insisted that the changes were necessary in order to meet the province’s housing goals and admitted that his government “could have had a better process.” He also agreed to 14 out of the 15 recommendations outlined in Lysyk’s 93-page report, with the notable exception of her call to re-evaluate the removal and consider reversing it.

Here, Lysyk explains the key findings in her report, how the government’s botched decision-making happened in the first place and why she won’t be attending a Ford family stag and doe anytime soon.

You’ve been Ontario’s auditor general for 10 years. In that time, you’ve conducted several high-profile audits, including a 2017 report that found that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government hid $26 billion of debt related to its “Fair Hydro Plan.” But what exactly does an auditor general do?
Auditor generals like myself are typically accountants who have been appointed to conduct audits of the finances and operations of government. Here in Ontario, auditor generals serve 10-year terms.

Related: Inside the debate raging around Doug Ford’s Greenbelt development plan

You were recently tasked with investigating how the province selected 7,400 acres for removal from the Greenbelt. What instigated your audit back in January?
About a month after the province officially announced the land removal in December, I received a letter from Ontario’s three main opposition party leaders outlining their concerns about how financial and environmental factors were not properly considered. Essentially, they didn’t understand how the decision to remove the land had been made.

How often does the province remove protected land from the Greenbelt?
It’s rare. There’s a review period once every 10 years when they consider amendments to the Greenbelt’s boundaries. When the last period concluded in 2017, about 370 acres were removed.

In that instance, there were no major issues or protests. So what makes this recent situation different?
One important distinction is that this newer land-removal decision happened in a much shorter time frame than the typical review period, which lasts upward of 21 months. This one lasted only three weeks. Whenever the province removes protected land from the Greenbelt, the public generally assumes it’s a decision based on good information and that environmental, agricultural and community effects are all comprehensively considered. But we found that the province didn’t appropriately consider these criteria. Additionally, the selection of certain lands for removal was made based on preferential treatment for developers who had access to the housing minister’s chief of staff.

Right—the chief of staff being Ryan Amato. That’s concerning. Can you explain what that biased selection process looked like?
Well, first of all, I wouldn’t call it a “process” because that implies that there was a series of clearly outlined and replicable steps that were followed in the decision-making. Throughout my report, I refer to the government’s activity in this area as an “exercise” instead.

Correction: what did that exercise look like?
At a dinner function in September 2022, two developers provided the housing minister’s chief of staff with written requests to remove certain land sites from the Greenbelt. Soon afterward, one of those developers made another request to the chief of staff to remove additional proposed sites. In total, the two developers asked for the removal of approximately 6,800 acres spread across five land sites. The chief of staff later included those five sites in a proposal for the removal of 21 sites that was submitted to the Greenbelt Project Team, a small group of non-elected civil servants in the housing ministry.

What role did the Greenbelt Project Team have?
This team was tasked with two things: assessing whether those lands met the criteria for removal and identifying other lands suitable for removal. Ultimately, they determined that several of the sites proposed by the chief of staff failed to meet all the necessary considerations, but he said it was okay to eliminate the criteria that were causing a problem. So, despite not meeting the original criteria, the chosen land sites were placed in a brief that recommended their removal from the Greenbelt without explaining how or why they were selected.

Once that brief was submitted, were the lands simply removed?
Not yet. The Ontario government has to consult with Indigenous communities first. When representatives for the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Alderville First Nation, the Mississaugas of Scugog Island and the Six Nations of the Grand River were consulted regarding this removal, they were overwhelmingly against it. However, despite their opposition, 15 land sites across 7,400 acres were still formally removed. Ninety-two per cent of that land had been proposed directly to the housing minister’s chief of staff by those two developers.

Related: Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault on Ford’s plan to develop the Greenbelt

So Amato disregarded Indigenous community feedback and other important criteria for land removal. He also didn’t disclose that some of the land sites were proposed by developers. Did he personally stand to benefit from getting those land sites removed?
We’ve not reported anything like that in our findings.

How did all this happen without proper intervention earlier on? What about checks and balances?
The province has received well over 600 requests to remove various land sites from the Greenbelt. That’s nothing new. What’s new this time is the lack of transparency. Aside from the lack of disclosure around who proposed certain sites and whether criteria for their removal was met, most people didn’t know that the Greenbelt was going to be opened for development. When the public announcement was made last fall, it was a complete surprise, and then only a select few were able to propose which properties to consider for removal. It may have been that the normal planning process was thought to be too lengthy, but that shouldn’t mean giving up key considerations of agricultural, environmental and community issues.

Is this flawed exercise the fault of a few bad eggs within the government or reflective of something bigger?
It could be systemic. It may be because there’s a culture within the government that assumes it’s okay to work with third parties like developers in this way. There are people who want to influence government decision-making, and it’s important that both elected and non-elected government staff recognize when information is coming from people with vested interests.

Some critics are accusing Ford of lying to Ontarians when he claims he wasn’t aware of how that land was selected for removal from the Greenbelt. What’s your take?
I can only go by what I was told by both the premier and the housing minister, which is that they did not know how these lands were selected.

Legislation prohibits reducing the overall size of the Greenbelt, so any land removed from it has to be replaced with comparable land. It should be noted that the province did add nearly 10,000 new acres to the Greenbelt, even though only 7,400 acres were removed. Doesn’t that more than make up for the land taken out?
That land that was added is largely already protected, and you can’t grow crops on it. A significant portion of the land removed is very different: it’s mostly agricultural land, woodlands or wetlands. So the removals and the additions aren’t like-for-like comparisons.

After your report came out, Doug Ford publicly stated that the Greenbelt land removal had to be done in order to help solve Ontario’s housing crisis. Does he have a point?
The province’s Housing Affordability Task Force has recommended a target of 1.5 million homes that need to be built. However, my team found that, a week before those 7,400 acres were put forward for removal from the Greenbelt, the housing ministry had already allocated the construction of 1.5 million homes to Ontario’s municipalities, and municipalities already had sufficient land to build them. This was confirmed in recent months, when my team spoke to the chief land use planners in Hamilton as well as Durham and York Regions.

You have to admit, this adds fuel to the theory that Ford is intentionally misleading people.
I can’t really comment on the premier’s intentions.

Fair enough, but you do have some ideas about how he could do his job better.
In my report, I make 15 recommendations. Many of them emphasize the need for more transparency. One key recommendation I make is that elected staff should have better knowledge of what’s expected of them, including prohibitions on conflicts of interest and giving preferential treatment to third parties.

Ford promised to implement 14 of your 15 recommendations—the sole exception being your recommendation to re-evaluate last December’s land removal and potentially reverse it.
The first 14 recommendations deal with the systemic issues we saw, and hopefully adopting them will prevent this type of situation from happening again. The 15th recommendation was made because the premier and the housing minister both told me that they didn’t know how these lands were selected. If decision makers didn’t know that this decision failed to meet criteria and that it was done through a biased process, we hoped that would mean the decision would be revisited, because it doesn’t set a good example for future decisions.

It sounds like that last recommendation is kind of a biggie.
I would simply say that we continue to support it.

I’m sure you’re aware that Ford is scrambling to put out the fires your report has ignited in the past week. Is it safe to assume you won’t be invited to his next stag and doe?
Ha. For everyone involved, I think our time would be better spent on reflection.

Your term as Ontario’s auditor general ends this September. Any plans for what you’ll do next?
My position requires a lot of focus, and I worked pretty hard on this new report, so I’ll probably take some time for myself and see where life takes me, but the word retirement doesn’t sit right. I still have a lot of energy. I may look for a way to contribute through an advisory service or by sitting on a board.

Perhaps you’ll have an opportunity to venture into the Greenbelt with all your newfound free time?
As part of this assignment, I actually drove up to the Greenbelt and explored the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve this summer. Just like everybody else, I like to get away from the city for a little while and enjoy fresh air. I’m originally from Manitoba, and as an Ontario transplant, it’s a privilege to see the beauty of the Greenbelt’s woodlands, wetlands and farmland.

That sounds like something worth protecting.
Yes. Ultimately, what we do with the Greenbelt is a government decision. But the public does need to understand how those decisions have been made.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.