Ford government faces new special report on Greenbelt communications

Ontario’s Information and Privacy commissioner plans to issue a special report on the Ford government’s handling of documents related to the Greenbelt scandal after critics raised questions about whether political staff actively tried to skirt the province’s disclosure laws.

Under Ontario’s Freedom of Information laws, government-held records are subject to disclosure with “limited and specific” exemptions including cabinet records and documents that breach personal privacy. In all other instances, the law says, “information should be available to the public.”

The NDP recently asked Patricia Kosseim’s office to conduct a full investigation into a “pattern of apparent non-compliance by government officials,” and claimed the government’s apparent use of code words to discuss the Greenbelt policy kept some records out of the public’s eye.

“Ministry officials and members of the Premier’s Office evidently adopted the term ‘Special Project’ or ‘SP’ to refer to the Greenbelt project in their internal communications,” Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles wrote. “The use of a code term would mean that searches using the term ‘greenbelt’ might not find all records responsive to an FOI request for  records related to the Greenbelt.”

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While Commissioner Kosseim declined Stiles’s request for a special investigation, she said her office currently has broad powers under Freedom of Information laws to examine records, order additional searches, summon witnesses to testify under oath and issue binding orders.

“Upon conclusion of the appeals process, my office plans to publish a special report consolidating our findings and providing a comprehensive summary of our conclusions and insights into the access to information and record-keeping issues relating to changes to the Greenbelt,” Kosseim said in a letter to the NDP on May 21.

Stiles said reports like these are “rare and very serious.”

“The IPC’s 2013 special report on the Liberal gas plant scandal triggered a police investigation, eventually sending the Liberal premier’s chief of staff to prison,” Stiles said, referring to David Livingston who was sentenced to four months in jail in 2018 for deleting emails connected to the scandal.

Global News has several active appeals with the Information and Privacy Commissioner directly related to how the government handles, discloses and maintains its records.

Since December 2022, the Ford government has been locked in a privacy battle with Global News over how Ontario Premier Doug Ford uses his personal cellphone for work. Requests to disclose the government-related calls made on that device — which provincial lawyers admit have taken place — have been refused by the government in the ongoing and protracted appeal.

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Separately, Global News is in the early stages of an appeal over emails sent from the personal account of former housing chief of staff Ryan Amato. In response to a freedom of information request filed for Greenbelt-related conversations on Amato’s personal server, the government disclosed only emails the former chief had forwarded to his government email from his personal account.

Ontario’s integrity commissioner found staff were routinely using personal email addresses during the Greenbelt scandal when decisions were made over which parcels of land to carve out of the protected area.

Despite the auditor general’s report finding personal emails about the Greenbelt should be subject to freedom of information laws, privacy staff with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing claimed Amato’s personal email account was not something they could access.

“As stated in the release letter unfortunately we do not have custody or control over the personal emails of the individual, anything that was forwarded to his work email was included and that is all we have custody of,” one privacy official wrote in an email.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner’s letter also stated how seriously her office takes the issue of access to information.

“Transparency in government actions and decisions is a fundamental principle that underpins the public’s trust in government,” Kosseim said. “My office takes these matters seriously and is committed to a thorough, fair and impartial examination of the issues arising from these various appeals.”

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The timing of the special report on the government’s handling of Greenbelt-related documents and its public release is unclear.

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