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An Investigation into the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division’s Handling of a Park Permit

The Issue

The City’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division (“PF&R”) had granted a park permit to a company offering sports programs for young children. The park had not been used in this way before. Almost immediately, neighbours living near the park complained to City staff and their local Councillor about noise, traffic, parking, and safety concerns. One person complained that the company was using the park outside of the permitted times.  

In response to these complaints, PF&R quickly decided to revoke the permit and relocate the program to another, larger park in the area, without consulting the company or investigating the complaints.

Our Investigation

The information we initially gathered about this case raised broader systemic questions about PF&R’s permit processes, so we began an investigation to examine them in more detail, and to consider any necessary recommendations for improvements. We looked at how PF&R approves new uses in parks, handles complaints, and makes and communicates decisions to revoke or alter a permit.

What We Found

We found that PF&R, in its effort to focus on customer service, overlooked the need for fairness. It immediately accepted and acted on the complaints of the neighbours of the park without canvassing or considering the perspectives of the company or program participants. It did not investigate the validity of the complaints. It did not consult with the company before it revoked the permit and relocated the program.

In addition, we found that: 

  • Had PF&R done more to properly assess the permit application during the initial approval process, the complaints about the use of the park and/or the need to cancel the permit might well have been avoided. 
  • There is no process for handling permit violations, and no clear understanding of the range of possible penalties.  
  • PF&R’s Complaints Policy does not address complaints about park use; it deals only with complaints about staff conduct. Staff had no written procedures or guidelines for handling complaints about park use.
  • There is no process for handling and communicating decisions to cancel, relocate or alter park permits.
  • PF&R staff did not keep adequate records of their communications with the company and members of the public, and did not properly document the reasons for canceling and relocating the permit.
  • Many PF&R staff were either unaware of relevant policies or disagreed on their application.

Our Impact

In order to improve the fairness of this process, we recommended that PF&R: 

  • Develop a clear and uniform process for assessing permit applications for new uses of City parks
  • Develop a process to identify and handle suspected permit violations
  • Develop a range of possible responses and/or penalties in the case of a confirmed permit violation, and publish those on its website
  • Amend its Complaints Policy to clarify that it applies to all complaints, not just those about PF&R staff, and to ensure that it sets out a clear investigative process for reviewing complaints
  • Develop a process ensuring that permit holders have the right to be heard and are given the reasons for any cancellation, relocation or alteration of a permit
  • Require appropriate record keeping
  • Ensure that all staff are appropriately trained on PF&R’s policies and procedures.