In a dramatic new development, this morning's Globe and Mail reveals a direct family connection between Michael Rice and John McGovern of the Rice Group and Susan McGovern, a former Ford Government appointee to the Greenbelt Foundation.

Click "read more" for this morning's jaw dropping Globe and Mail revelations.

Update on 9 September 2023: From the Globe and Mail: Opposition demands Greenbelt reversal amid revelations of Ford government appointee's family ties

The G&M's Karen Howlett and Jill Mahoney write: 

The former vice-chair of a foundation set up to safeguard the Greenbelt, who was appointed to its board by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government, has close family ties to one of the select group of developers whose land was opened up for housing construction in the environmentally protected region. 

The government appointed Susan McGovern (photo below right) in 2019 to the board of the Greenbelt Foundation, which describes itself on its website as “the only organization solely dedicated to ensuring the Greenbelt remains permanent, protected and prosperous.” Her three-year term ended on Nov. 20.

Ms. McGovern’s brother and husband operate The Rice Group, one of the handful of developers whose land Mr. Ford’s governmentremoved from the Greenbelt last year, making the property no longer subject to the protected zone’s restrictions on building.

She is the sister of Michael Rice (photo right), the chief executive officer of The Rice Group, who during Ms. McGovern’s term as vice-chair lobbied the Ontario government to allow development on the company’s Greenbelt land. That lobbying was detailed in a report released last week by Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner. Ms. McGovern’s husband, John McGovern, is the company’s senior vice-president of policy and planning.

The Greenbelt Foundation, established by the former Liberal provincial government when it first designated the Greenbelt in 2005, has no power to determine what properties are within the protected zone’s borders. The foundation was created to advocate for the continued preservation of the 800,000 hectares of farms, forest and wetlands that make up the Greenbelt, which stretches across the Greater Golden Horseshoe in the Toronto area.

In interviews, the foundation’s chief executive officer and its chair said they were unaware that Ms. McGovern’s brother had been lobbying the government on Greenbelt development while she was vice-chair – an activity at cross-purposes with the foundation’s mandate.

“We certainly appreciate the optics of these circumstances,” foundation CEO Edward McDonnell said. “We can appreciate why people would look askance at it.”

In January, after Ms. McGovern left the foundation, she became an executive adviser to Peter Bethlenfalvy, Ontario’s Finance Minister. She, her brother and her husband did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Mr. Ford is battling a political firestorm over his government’s decision to open parts of the Greenbelt to development. The government is defending the move as necessary to tackle the province’s housing crisis, but critics have said there is enough land outside the protected area to meet home-building targets. 

Bonnie Lysyk, whose term as the province’s auditor-general ended on Sunday, concluded last month in her final report before leaving office that the government’s process of selecting land for removal from the Greenbelt was rushed, seriously flawed and “favoured certain developers.” Her report says the changes resulted in an $8.3-billion windfall for developers, in the form of increased land values.

Ontario Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake concluded in a separate report last week that Steve Clark, who was housing minister at the time, had violated the legislature’s ethics rules by failing to properly oversee Ryan Amato, his chief of staff, who drove the selection of land for removal from the Greenbelt. Mr. Amato resignedlast month, and Mr. Clark resigned on Monday.

Ms. McGovern’s brother, Mr. Rice, purchased 280 hectares of Greenbelt land in the township of King, north of Toronto, for $80-million on May 3, 2022, according to the Integrity Commissioner’s report. The sale closed on Sept. 15, 2022, the report says.

On Sept. 14, the night before the closing, Mr. Rice and Mr. Amato attended a gala sponsored by a development industry association. During the event, Mr. Rice mentioned that parcel of land to Mr. Amato, describing it “as a good candidate for removal from the Greenbelt,” the report says. Mr. Rice met with Mr. Amato later that month and gave him a document containing a rationale for removing the land, along with a map of the area, according to the report.

John McGovern, Ms. McGovern’s husband, confirmed to the Integrity Commissioner that he had “pulled together this package of information” for Mr. Rice’s meeting with Mr. Amato, which took place on either Sept. 27 or Sept. 28, the report says.

The Greenbelt Foundation held a board meeting on Oct. 3, which Ms. McGovern attended. She did not disclose anything about her brother’s connection to land in the Greenbelt or his lobbying, Mr. McDonnell, the foundation CEO, told The Globe and Mail.

But after the government announced on Nov. 4 that it was reversing its long-standing promise not to touch the Greenbelt, and would instead be allowing housing in parts of it, she revealed that her brother was among the developers whose lands had been selected for development.

“Obviously, when it became public, there were a number of people who pointed out to me, including Sue, the connection,” Mr. McDonnell said.

Mary Lou Tanner, the Greenbelt Foundation’s chair, was among those who first learned in November that the organization’s vice-chair had a family member who had benefited from the government’s decision. Ms. Tanner has been an outspoken critic on social media of what she calls the Ford government’s “Greenbelt grab.”

Ms. Tanner said it was Mr. McDonnell who informed her of Ms. McGovern’s family connections.

“I was surprised,” she said in an interview. “I wasn’t aware of the family relationship at all.”I

Asked if Ms. McGovern should have made an earlier disclosure, Ms. Tanner said she didn’t know what Ms. McGovern knew about her husband and brother’s business activities, and did not want to speculate.

For his part, Mr. McDonnell said Ms. McGovern served her term on the board “honourably, with great integrity.” Her position was unpaid. Prior to joining the Finance Minister’s office, she was vice-president of external relations at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont.

The Premier’s Office did not respond to questions about what disclosure, if any, Ms. McGovern had made to the government about her ties to the Rice Group during her tenure at the foundation. Instead, it provided a description of what the foundation does.

The foundation is largely funded by the Ontario government. In the 2023 fiscal year, $3.8-million of its $4.3-million in revenue came from the province – money that is distributed in the form of grants to organizations that promote the Greenbelt.

The foundation issued a statement in December describing the government’s decision to open up parcels of land in the Greenbelt to development as a “dangerous precedent” that will “damage valuable water systems and wetlands that supply ground water, reduce flood risks and improve climate resilience for the nearby communities.”

With a report from Stephanie Chambers