Ontario housing minister's chief of staff resigns amid Greenbelt controversy

The Premier's office says it has accepted the resignation Housing minister's chief of staff, Ryan Amato. (Ryan Amato/LinkedIn - image credit)
The Premier's office says it has accepted the resignation Housing minister's chief of staff, Ryan Amato. (Ryan Amato/LinkedIn - image credit)

The political staffer who played a key role in the Ontario government's controversial move to open up thousands of hectares of protected Greenbelt land for housing development has resigned.

The Premier's office said Tuesday it had accepted Ryan Amato's resignation as chief of staff to Housing Minister Steve Clark "effective immediately."

The resignation comes less than two weeks after Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk issued a scathing report into the government's removal of land from southern Ontario's Greenbelt in December — a vast 810,000-hectare area of farmland, forest and wetland stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough meant to be off-limits to development.

While the province added more protected land elsewhere, the removals are meant to lead to the construction of 50,000 homes in service of the province's goal of building 1.5 million new homes in the next decade.

Lysyk's investigation found the government's process for choosing which sites to remove was influenced by a small number of well-connected real estate developers with access to Amato

The report said Amato — not non-partisan public servants — selected 14 of the 15 sites that were ultimately removed from the Greenbelt and the majority were chosen after suggestions from developers who lobbied him personally through encounters at an industry event or in emails sent by their lawyers.

CBC Toronto reached out to Amato for comment by email but didn't immediately receive a response.

Both Ford and Clark have said they were unaware that the land chosen for removal was brought forward by Amato via the developers. Ford has said he was only briefed on the sites the day before cabinet approved the changes, while Clark has said he learned of the plan the week prior.

Liberals, Greens, NDP call for Clark to resign

Amato's resignation wasn't enough to put an end to calls from opposition leaders for more accountability .

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Amato's resignation doesn't resolve the situation and he called for the housing minister himself to resign.

"It is simply not believable that one political staffer was behind this $8.3-billion cash-for-your-land-scheme," Fraser said in a statement.

"The truth of the matter is that the minister and the premier brought forward and supported this scheme at cabinet with the full knowledge of what they were doing."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford listens as Ontario’s minister of housing Steve Clark speaks during a press conference in Mississauga, Ont., Friday, Aug. 11, 2023.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford listens as Ontario’s minister of housing Steve Clark speaks during a press conference in Mississauga, Ont., Friday, Aug. 11, 2023.

The leaders of Ontario's Liberal and Green parties continue to say Housing Minister Steve Clark should resign. ( The Canadian Press/Cole Burston)

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner agreed that Clark should resign, adding Ford should reverse the decision to "pave over the Greenbelt.".

"The resignation of Minister Clark's chief of staff is the first step in the long process to restore public trust," Schreiner said.

"But if the premier believes this is the end of the story, he's mistaken."

Ford has said no one received preferential treatment and that his government would accept and implement 14 of 15 total recommendations Lysyk made in her report. The single recommendation it will not accept is to revisit the land swaps and possibly reverse those decisions.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles, for her part, said in a statement the resignation is the "bare minimum of accountability for one of the most serious breaches of public trust" in provincial history.

"The auditor general's report was very clear—this staffer obviously didn't act independently," Stiles said.

"Now it's time that the Minister take responsibility, do the right thing, and step down; time that the government recall the Legislature so we can restore these lands to the Greenbelt for protection; and time for the Conservatives to start providing Ontarians with the transparency and accountability they deserve. Mr. Ford needs to face the music."

92% of land removed by developers with access

Lysyk found Amato directed a small team of housing ministry bureaucrats in October 2022 that decided which sites would be removed.

Instead of finding that developers were tipped off in advance, Lysyk found it was the developers themselves who, in many cases, successfully lobbied to have specific sites they owned opened up for housing development.

"Many of these individuals had advocated for the removal in emails and in-person meetings within a few months prior to their removal," according to the report.

According to a timeline of key events, two prominent housing developers approached Clark's chief of staff in September 2022 at a building industry event and provided him with information on two sites in the Greenbelt — an area in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP) in Pickering and a site in the Township of King purchased that very month for $80 million.

As CBC Toronto has reported, Silvio De Gasperis, president of the Tacc Group of companies, owns more than two dozen properties in the DRAP. Michael Rice, CEO of Rice Group, owns the King property. Both De Gasperis and Rice — who were not named in the report — fought the auditor general's summons' to answer questions about the land swap.

Shortly after the September event, one of the developers provided Amato with information related to three other sites.

"About 92 per cent of the land that was ultimately removed from the Greenbelt was requested to be removed by the developers the chief of staff dined with at [the event]," the report said.

Citing the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, which is responsible for calculating property values in Ontario, Lysyk estimates the landowners of the 15 sites removed from the Greenbelt could see their land's value increase by $8.3 billion.

Ontario's integrity commissioner is considering a request to investigate if Amato broke any ethics rules after a referral from the Ford. That request is in addition to a separate investigation the office is conducting related to the Greenbelt land swaps at the request of NDP Leader Marit Stiles.