Steve Clark resigns from Cabinet

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Photo of happier days: Steve Clark sworn into the Ford Cabinet by Ontario Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell in June, 2018

In the wake of two official reports which found he had failed in his responsibilities as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark announced his resignation from that office on Monday. In his letter to Premier Ford, and in a statement issued on social media, he said:

“As someone who has given my life to serving the people through our democratic institutions, it is my responsibility to adhere to the principles of Ministerial accountability. I will continue to serve my constituents as the MPP for Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.”

This sudden and dramatic downturn in Steve Clark’s political career has come as a genuine surprise to many of his constituents. Known over many years as an honest, articulate, and honourable man who represented his riding with efficiency and integrity, the conclusions of two reports, by the Auditor General and the Ontario Integrity Commissioner, has left his reputation severely damaged and his future political prospects more uncertain after his resignation.

It has to be said that, at this stage, that there is no suggestion that Steve Clark, as Minister for Municipal Affairs and Housing, did anything illegal, with the focus centering on his ex-Chief of Staff, Ryan Amato. As a Minister, the Integrity Commissioner’s Report found that Clark contravened sections of the Members’ Integrity Act, 1994 “by failing to oversee the process by which lands in the Greenbelt were selected for development, leading to the private interests of certain developers being furthered improperly”.

By not supervising Amato, who, working closely with developers, chose 14 of the 15 tracts of land to be released from Greenbelt restrictions on development, Clark facilitated a process that has raised serious questions. The two Reports strongly rebuked him for this failure to do his job as Minister, and the Integrity Commissioner, while noting that he believed the Minister’s claims “that he chose to absent himself from directing this file or receiving information on it” after Amato told him he could  “leave it with me”, still concluded that “Mr. Amato’s communications to developers must be attributed to Mr. Clark because I find he failed to oversee an important initiative in his ministry which led to some developers being alerted to a potential change in the government’s position on the Greenbelt with the result that their private interests were furthered improperly” [Report Paras 574-575]. These private interests are said to have potentially benefitted to the amount of more than $8 billion.

The Commissioner’s conclusions are best summed up in this section: “It may seem incredible that Minister Clark would have chosen to stick his head in the sand on such an important initiative being undertaken by his ministry but I believe that was exactly what he did”. [Para 251] Those who have known Steve Clark over the years will be surprised, to say the least, at this “head in the sand” attitude on his part, but the Report also provides a possible motive.

Steve Clark, as M.P.P., had always been opposed to using Greenbelt lands for private development, and the sudden u-turn by the Ford Government on the issue after the last election caused him real concerns. The Commissioner’s Report noted: “Minister Clark did not appear ‘keen to be doing this project’, Minister Clark acknowledged that he was ‘not in a very happy mood.’ He explained ‘given the fact I was making the decision which was counter to some of the decisions I had made in the first term. And so it’s a tough decision.’” [Para 246]

Rather than resign on principle, Steve Clark was happy to let his Chief of Staff handle the unpleasant job of choosing which Greenbelt properties would be released for development. This was an unethical refusal to accept his responsibility as Minister of Housing. Given that he was basically opposed to the Greenbelt initiative, but that he was the Minister with the job of implementing his government’s policy on it, perhaps stepping down would have been better than stepping aside.

His decision to resign now may not be the end of this controversy. The Premier has not changed his mind about releasing those 15 tracts of land to development, in spite of the questionable way in which they were identified. More housing is, in the government’s opinion, worth the $8 billion profit made by a few developers. The irony is that the government’s own studies have shown that the Greenbelt properties are not needed in order to reach the housing targets for which Ford and Clark were pushing.

The Integrity Commissioner had recommended that Steve Clark be reprimanded by the Legislature as: “I acknowledge that Minister Clark has never before been the subject of an inquiry under the Act”, and that “this recommendation would be a sufficient penalty to be imposed at this time”. It is unclear, as yet, whether that reprimand will be needed now that the Minister has resigned. It is equally unclear what effect the entire episode will have on Steve Clark’s future career as an M.P.P.. In addition, there had already been strong rumours that this would have been his last term in the Legislature, as he was apparently thinking of retiring from politics at the next election. This latest development may add to that calculation..

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