Ontario sacks three Waterfront Toronto board members amid Sidewalk Labs controversy - EcoFinBiz Blog

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Ontario sacks three Waterfront Toronto board members amid Sidewalk Labs controversy

Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton has fired the three provincial government representatives on the board of Waterfront Toronto in response to an auditor general’s report that “shocked” him.

But despite being fired as a board member, Waterfront Toronto acting CEO Michael Nobrega will continue serving as chief executive, at least until a replacement is found, the agency said in a statement. Nobrega replaced previous CEO Will Fleissig who left the post in July.

The firings, announced Thursday, leave the government agency in flux, and outgoing board chair Helen Burstyn, who was among the board members asked to leave, said she can’t comment on Waterfront Toronto’s marquee Quayside development because there are “too many uncertainties at the moment.”

Meric S. Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, was the third board member let go.

The minister said he was acting to rein in the agency on the heels of a report Wednesday by Ontario’s auditor general.

“The auditor general’s report on Waterfront Toronto made it clear that oversight needs strengthening,” McNaughton said in an emailed statement.

“Specifically, the report stated that Waterfront Toronto failed to properly consult with its overseers. This is unacceptable.”

“Waterfront Toronto accepts all Board members appointed by our government partners, who have the full purview to appoint or remove members to the Board of Directors,” spokesperson Andrew Tumilty wrote in an email.

The firings come at a critical time for Waterfront Toronto, the agency leading the development of the Sidewalk Labs project proposed for the city’s eastern waterfront. The project was supposed to be a leading-edge smart city envisioned by Sidewalk, a sister-company to Google LLC. Critics have raised a litany of concerns about privacy, data collection, intellectual property and governance issues, and the public consultation process has been repeatedly delayed and changed.

McNaughton in his statement said that the Sidewalk project was part of the reason he fired the three board representatives.

“I was also shocked to learn the board was given one weekend to examine the most important transaction in its history before being asked to approve it,” he said, referring to the Sidewalk Labs deal.

“On Wednesday, I said I would act on that information. Accordingly, I have informed the three current Provincially-appointed board members that we are bringing new leadership to the board.”

No replacements have been named by the province yet.

“I won’t speculate on what will happen in the future,” McNaughton said. “I can tell you that our actions will be guided by three principles: respect for taxpayer dollars, strong oversight and the protection of people’s privacy.”

In an email to the Financial Post, Burstyn said she was proud of her tenure at Waterfront Toronto, and she felt that she had accomplished a lot.

“I have been fortunate to sit on the boards of many organizations and I want to state unequivocally that the staff and the board members of Waterfront Toronto are second to none,” she said.

“Like everyone who lives in or visits the City of Toronto, I love our waterfront. I will continue to watch and cheer on Waterfront Toronto as it continues to build on its tremendous success.”

Burstyn’s statement did not mention Sidewalk Toronto or the proposed development at Quayside. Instead, she said she’s proud of initiating flood protection plans in Toronto’s Port Lands, and creating public spaces including Sugar Beach and Corktown Commons.

In a follow-up email, Burstyn said she couldn’t comment on the Sidewalk Labs development at Quayside specifically because there are “too many uncertainties at the moment.”

Mayor John Tory said he got a heads-up that the province was going to make changes at Waterfront Toronto in a meeting with Premier Doug Ford, but he was assured the province wasn’t going to “blow up” the agency.

“He said to me that they were going to make changes to the board. They had some concerns about different aspects of things the waterfront corporation was doing, but there was no plan that accompanied making changes to the board that would constitute anything that would imperil the waterfront corporation,” Tory said Friday.

“I take him at his word on that.”

The federal government said that Ontario was within its rights to replace board members.

“We are proud of the work of the federal board members and the organization which has led to a historic more than $1 billion agreement for flood protection in the Portlands as well as the first steps toward the Quayside redevelopment,” a spokesperson said on behalf of Infrastructure and Communities Minister Fran├žois-Philippe Champagne. “This is significant investment will support the ongoing revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront to create good, middle-class jobs and modern, green and resilient infrastructure.”

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