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Released documents reveal more details on Greenbelt, urban boundary scandals

Opposition politicians say the document dump shows the premier was in the loop
Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends a news conference at Bramalea GO Station, in Brampton, on Thursday May 11, 2023.

This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

An advocacy group has released thousands of pages of government documents concerning the now-reversed decisions to open parts of the Greenbelt to development and expand municipal boundaries in Ontario.

The documents reveal “the chaotic, developer-led process that did an end-run around the normal planning approval process and was driven by political staff in the minister’s office,” said Environmental Defence when it released the documents to the public and the media Monday afternoon.

The group obtained the documents from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing through a freedom of information request. Multiple sources connected to the government have said these documents influenced the decision it announced last week to reverse expansions of municipal boundaries and change cities’ official plans.

The opposition parties at Queen’s Park pounced immediately, saying the documents prove the premier was involved in the controversial decisions that would have enriched developers with ties to the government, had they not been walked back this fall.

“These documents make it more clear than ever that all roads lead to the premier,” said Marit Stiles, leader of the Ontario NDP, shortly after the documents were publicly released. 

That was echoed by Interim Liberal John Fraser.

“There is no way — absolutely no way on God's green earth — that the premier didn't know about this,” he said.

Green leader Mike Schreiner and Environmental Defence both said the documents call into question claims the government has made about who knew what about the land development decisions, when.

Premier’s meeting

The documents contain one direct mention of the premier himself: a brief account of a meeting Ford was said to have had with developer Sergio Manchia in 2021 about the removal of Hamilton lands from the Greenbelt back in 2021.

It said then-mayor of Hamilton Fred Eisenberger and "Joseph Mancinelli" were also in attendance. The Canadian head of LiUNA — a construction union that is a strong supporter of the Ford government in Ontario — is named Joseph Mancinelli, but the union denied Monday that he took part in this meeting.

The letter suggests the premier agreed to pursue the removal of Manchia’s lands from the Greenbelt. The land in question was eventually removed, along with a nearby parcel owned by a client of Manchia’s firm, Lucy Faiella, who is Mancinelli’s executive assistant at LiUNA.

Scott Beedie, a planner with Urban Solutions, emailed the premier’s executive assistant on Nov. 15, 2021 — nearly a year before the government announced the Greenbelt changes it later walked back. The subject was “Greenbelt Alteration - Fifty Road Lands, Hamilton.”

It details the company’s justification for allowing the development of the lands and includes a summary of the meeting on Sept. 20, 2021.

It says they “met and discussed the justification for the addition of the lands to the Fruitland-Winona Secondary Plan, siting (sic) the error in the mapping of the subject lands when the Greenbelt was initiated. 

“The parties agreed to pursue the request as it was in keeping with the Province's objectives of aiding municipalities in providing much-needed housing.”

Before reversing his decision, Ford often echoed that point, claiming the Greenbelt’s boundaries were inappropriate — even going so far as to call the protected area a “scam.”

Manchia has been a controversial figure in the ongoing Greenbelt scandal. The province’s integrity commissioner detailed his repeated efforts to have the land released for development. 

Ryan Amato, the key staffer involved in the doomed Greenbelt plan, at one point texted a colleague to say, “The premier needs to stop calling this guy,” referring to Manchia.

However, he and the colleague later denied that meant the premier was calling him and Ford told the integrity commissioner he’s not familiar with Manchia.

"Asked whether he knew Mr. Manchia and about any communications with him, Premier Ford advised that he ‘meets literally thousands of people’ and it is impossible to keep track of them all," Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake wrote in the Aug. 30 report he published following his Greenbelt investigation.

"He said he was not immediately familiar with Mr. Manchia but it is possible he has met him. He said he had no recollection of meeting him, having any telephone or other conversations with him about the Greenbelt, or communicating to any staff about Mr. Manchia.”

Manchia, however, said he’s met the premier five or six times, including holding a fundraiser in September 2021 — the same month as the meeting described in the document — for PC MPP Donna Skelly at his home. He said 50 to 70 people came and Ford “dropped in” in person.

“Mr. Manchia said he does not believe he talked to Premier Ford about the Greenbelt at these events, and that it was usually a handshake and hello,” the report said.

Manchia also said he bought four tickets to the stag and doe held for Ford’s daughter in August 2022, but did not attend personally.

On Monday, the premier's spokesperson said that, despite the document, changes to the Greenbelt "were only contemplated after the 2022 provincial election."

"As noted by both the Auditor General and the Integrity Commissioner, neither the premier or the premier’s office was part of any specific site selection," said Caitlin Clark. "This particular proposal for removal had long-standing support from the local municipality, including a letter from the then-mayor of Hamilton as well as a council resolution.”

For its part, LiUNA had denied being involved with the lands in any capacity.

‘Keep your mouth shut’

Other tidbits from the report deal with the government’s communications plans.

Amato — then chief of staff to then-housing minister Steve Clark — was aware of the impending media storm, according to notes in the documents taken during meetings with Clark’s office. 

Regarding a Toronto Star “hit piece,” the notes read, Amato told attendees to “keep your mouth shut and stick to it.” 

That meeting happened on Nov. 17, the same day the Toronto Star and Narwhal published a joint investigation into how PC-connected builders would benefit from the decision to open Greenbelt lands to development.

Under a heading titled “Comms,” a handwritten note reads, “in for a rough ride, hold the line ‘it’s all about housing.’”

It could be “tempting to do other [illegible] but we should keep it simple/basic rather than go off piste for comms.”

‘Not going to hand somebody the gun to shoot me with’

Clark’s office also discussed how to deal with outside requests for information about the Greenbelt changes. 

The Greenbelt Foundation and other stakeholders are “asking for data,” one meeting attendee noted. 

“Recommended approach is to share info upon request — would allow public/landowners etc to do analysis, Consultants may ask on behalf of landowners,” the notes read.

Amato was quoted as saying, "Not going to hand somebody the gun to shoot me with so no.”

CBC asked for the acreage of each parcel of land removed from the Greenbelt, the notes read. 

“DM,” often an abbreviation for “deputy minister,” said they didn’t know why anyone but “planners on the team” would need that information.

“Won't share unless they have a really good reason,” DM said, per the notes.

Regarding “external requests for shapefiles” — an information format for mapping software the team used to plan land changes — the minister’s office decreed “no provision of shapefiles; no provision of size of files.”

Just doing what they asked for

In an Oct. 19 briefing with staff from the housing minister’s office, a senior civil servant gave an update on several properties. 

Regarding Cherrywood, the site owned by TACC’s Silvio De Gasperis and the largest single chunk of land taken out of the Greenbelt, one of the attendees said the ministry was doing “just what (the) owner asked for.” 

De Gasperis had long wanted the Cherrywood lands removed from the Greenbelt. He met with every chief of staff to the housing minister on the topic since the Greenbelt was created, he told the integrity commissioner. He even raised it with Premier Ford after the 2018 election, he said. 

De Gasperis sat with Amato at an industry dinner on Sept. 14, 2022. He’d known ahead of time they’d be tablemates, so he had his daughter Alana — TACC’s head planner — prepare a package on why the lands should be removed. 

“I have a package I want you to take a look at — there was an injustice done at Cherrywood and I want you to take a look,” De Gasperis recalls himself saying to Amato at the dinner, according to the integrity commissioner’s report. 

Amato, according to De Gasperis’ recollection, said he’d look into it. 

Ford is scheduled to hold a press conference on Tuesday morning.