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How a sliver of land connected to a Ford-friendly union was removed from the Greenbelt

A small piece of land owned by a LiUNA employee was one of the parcels removed from the Greenbelt, Global News has learned, leading to new questions about the Ford government’s removals process and whether relationships with the government played a role.

LiUNA, the Labourers International Union of North America, is a sizable trade union that has a professional relationship with both the Ford government and the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.

In 2022, months after the union endorsed Ford’s PC party ahead of the provincial election, a tiny parcel of land owned by the executive assistant to LiUNA’s International Vice-President Joe Mancinelli was removed from the Greenbelt and designated for housing development.

The removal, Global News has learned, came after a years-long lobbying effort by a land planning consultancy firm whose owners also have direct relationships with the Progressive Conservative party and one of whom attended the August 2022 stag and doe party in Premier Ford’s backyard, according to Ontario’s integrity commissioner.

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A spokesperson for the union said LiUNA had “absolutely no insight nor involvement” in the decision to remove those lands from the Greenbelt and “categorically” did not participate in lobbying related to the “private property.”

The executive assistant and owner of the property removed from the Greenbelt, Lucy Faiella, did not respond for comment.

Years of unsuccessful lobbying

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The property in question, a 78-acre lot on Cline Road in Grimsby, seemed in many ways destined for development.

Publicly available documents show the Faiella family has long believed the land should be removed from the Greenbelt and divided the property into more than a dozen lots, each paying individual property taxes.

Efforts to have it greenlit for development date back to at least 2015 when the former Liberal government was in the midst of a mandated, 10-year review of the entire two-million-acre Greenbelt.

To help convince the Liberals to release Faiella’s land from the Greenbelt, records suggest its owners hired a planning firm, Urban Solutions, to woo local and provincial planning officials into allowing the change.

The effort to remove the Faiella land from the Greenbelt was spearheaded by the two principal planners at Urban Solutions: Sergio Manchia and Matt Johnston, both of whom had ties to the Progressive Conservative party.

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According to a report by the integrity commissioner in 2023, other land owned by Manchia was also removed from the Greenbelt in 2022 and Johnston attended a wedding event for Ford’s daughter, where he briefly met the premier.

The integrity commissioner’s report also outlines several extensive meetings and phone calls between political staff working on the Greenbelt file and Manchia and Johnston discussing other land that was eventually removed.

Initially, over the course of 2015, 2016 and 2017, Manchia and Johnston made several applications for removal. Although the Town of Grimsby agreed the land should be removed, they were unable to convince the Liberals the property should not be in the Greenbelt.

Then, available public evidence of their lobbying efforts suggests they went dormant. It was roughly half a decade later that the pair tried again, writing a letter to Steve Clark in October 2022.

A map of the Greenbelt land in Grimsby returned by the Ford government. Government of Ontario

The election campaign

As the Ontario PC Party entered the 2022 election campaign, Premier Doug Ford won the endorsement of Joe Mancinelli who encouraged LiUNA’s 100,000 members to support the Progressive Conservatives and actively campaign against the party’s opponents.

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Elections Ontario records show the union spent $97,872 on third-party political advertising; it is unclear if every dollar spent by LiUNA was used to support the PCs but the union did throw its sizeable weight behind the party.

Thousands of dollars in personal donations by the Mancinelli family were also contributed to the party’s election war chest. The family has contributed small sums to the Liberals and the NDP, but Elections Ontario data suggests the vast majority of their spending has been in support of the Progressive Conservatives.

Ontario’s integrity commissioner said in his Greenbelt investigation that some political staffers who spoke to him said it was during this election campaign that the party revisited the idea of opening large parcels of land for housing development to meet the government’s goal of 1.5 million homes by 2031.

Senior political staff also said work on mandate letters, which included the instruction to remove land from the Greenbelt, began during the campaign period.

When the PCs won their majority government, mandate letters — that were reportedly drafted during the campaign — were handed to ministers. The letter for Ontario’s housing minister included an explicit instruction: work out how to swap land in and out of the Greenbelt.

Doug Ford’s family stag and doe event

Months after the June 2022 provincial election, some in the development and land planning community were offered a rare chance to rub shoulders with the premier. Among those was Matt Johnston of Urban Solutions, the integrity commissioner said.

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Sergio Manchia, also of Urban Solutions, purchased four tickets to a stag and doe for Ford’s daughter, the integrity commissioner said. It was a private wedding-related fundraiser being thrown in the Ford family’s backyard in Etobicoke.

Manchia, who was unable to attend, passed the tickets to Johnston and three other people to go on his behalf.

“Mr. Johnston confirmed he attended the August 2022 stag and doe for Premier Ford’s daughter and her fiancé, with a ticket provided by Mr. Manchia,” the report stated.

The report added that: “Johnston did attend the event, met the premier, shook his hand, said a quick hello and had no other conversation.”

Click to play video: 'Ontario Premier Ford faces continued questions over stag and doe party'

Ontario Premier Ford faces continued questions over stag and doe party

Renewed lobbying efforts

Weeks after the party, however, Johnston officially revived the efforts to have the Faiella property removed from the Greenbelt.

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He penned a letter to then-housing minister Steve Clark on Oct. 6, 2022, outlining why the Fiaella property should be removed, his history of lobbying activity and arguments for why the land was perfect for building.

“It is our opinion that the subject lands … should be removed from the Greenbelt Plan,” the letter read. Attached to the letter were images of overgrown weeds, a car radiator dumped on the site and evidence of “clandestine cultivation.”

“The lands have not been used for farming purposes for over five decades,” the submission said. “It is reasonable to extend the residential uses along this stretch of road.”

The letter was sent a month before the province announced that 7,400 acres of protected land would be removed from the Greenbelt.

The government had maintained that no property owner was given a heads-up about the removal.

Click to play video: 'Ontario’s NDP leader addresses Steve Clark resignation, calls on Ford to end ‘dirty’ land swap deal'

Ontario’s NDP leader addresses Steve Clark resignation, calls on Ford to end ‘dirty’ land swap deal

LiUNA denies involvement

The Ford government has long maintained a healthy working relationship with LiUNA, viewing the union as a key partner in the province’s quest to build billions of dollars in public infrastructure.

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“I love LiUNA,” Ford said in 2020. “I’ve said it over and over again that there’s something special about Joseph (Mancinelli) that he thinks outside the box. He really does.”

One source in the development industry told Global News while there’s nothing “slimy” about the relationship, LiUNA “gets whatever they want from government.”

“The government just loves them,” the source said. “If they apply for funding, it’s basically a guarantee.”

Public accounts indicate that between 2019 and 2023, the union was awarded more than $10 million in taxpayer funding for skills training from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.

In 2020, the union was able to successfully convince the government to revive the Hamilton LRT by suggesting a public-private partnership, just months after the province cancelled the project citing cost projections.

Global News asked LiUNA whether anyone from the organization helped facilitate the land removal request on behalf of Faiella.

“To be clear, LiUNA has absolutely no insight nor involvement with anything pertaining to the personal and private residence of Mrs. Faiella,” Victoria Mancinelli, LiUNA’s director of public relations said in a statement.

“Neither Joseph nor LiUNA are privy to, nor responsible for her personal matters regarding her family property.”

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“We can state, categorically, that LiUNA had no involvement whatsoever with respect to any alleged lobbying efforts regarding Mrs. Faiella’s private property,” Mancinelli said.

A spokesperson for Premier Ford said the removal of the land from the Greenbelt had long been supported by local officials and reiterated that no developers were given advance notice of the now-reversed Greenbelt changes.

“No one was provided any advance notice on the decision to remove specific lands from the Greenbelt,” the spokesperson said.

“The property in question was the subject of a longstanding request from the municipality to build density near future transit. All properties are now in the process of being returned to the Greenbelt.”

Johnston, Manchia and Faeilla did not respond to lists of detailed questions asking how the property was removed.

Click to play video: 'Doug Ford campaigns quietly'

Doug Ford campaigns quietly

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