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It’s been almost two months since Toronto city council last met. What exactly have councillors been doing?
April 29, 2020
David Rider

Much of Toronto is shut down indefinitely but city councillors, set to meet online after an extended break, say they’ve never been busier.

“I’m getting non-stop requests like ‘When will barber shops open?’” says Mike Colle, working from home like many Torontonians during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s relentless because people are at home so they’ve gone to non-stop calling and emailing since this (pandemic) started,” says Colle (Ward 8 Eglinton-Lawrence). “You can’t get away from it. There’s no more clock.”

Council last had a regular meeting in late February. Mayor John Tory on March 23 declared an emergency, shutting down non-essential city services and essentially becoming a one-man city council to react to the crisis.

Colleagues are preparing for Thursday’s first-ever online council meeting. The agenda includes Tory seeking an emergency powers extension, plus non-crisis topics such as a gypsy moth outbreak and proposed bike lane expansion.

Their work has never stopped, councillors say. They meet online with staff, colleagues and constituents instead of shuttling between city hall and ward events.

“We’re mainly in the communications business the last few weeks,” informing residents about physical distancing rules, financial aid and more, says John Filion (Ward 18 Willowdale).

Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 13 Toronto Centre) and her staff are normally coping with a spring rush of downtown development applications.

While planning offices are closed, she says, “We track every single government announcement. At the end every day we send out a COVID-19 update ¬†highlighting issues that I believe people should be informed about.”

Wong-Tam is also working on initiatives to help Yonge Street Mission and “struggling LGBTQ2S+ businesses.”

Two Scarborough representatives -- Michael Thompson, the economic and community development chair, and budget chief Gary Crawford -- are in constant touch with Tory and officials about his economic support and recovery task force.

Nine other councillors, of all political stripes and from across Toronto, are helping consult leaders in business, education, housing and other sectors on how to get the city back on its feet.

Michael Ford, Premier Doug Ford’s nephew, is not among them but says he has “regular conversations” with Tory’s office and the Ontario government about issues affecting the city and Ward 1 Etobicoke North residents.

Some have made personal protective equipment a priority. Jim Karygiannis (Ward 22 Scarborough-Agincourt) has distributed thousands of pieces to workers in health care and seniors homes, plus regular constituents.

Some councillors already had home offices. Others are adapting.

“My wife is also working from home and our three boys are studying, so trying to find a workspace is challenging,” says government services chair Paul Ainslie (Ward 24 Scarborough Guildwood).

Gord Perks continues work as chair of the city’s drug strategy, noting an increase in opioid overdose calls.

He is also meeting electronically with fellow council progressives as well as with Ward 4 Parkdale-High Park residents. But Perks says nothing replaces traditional meetings and he worries about when he can sit across the table from people.

“Not being able to sit in a town hall forum and have a conversation with the neighbourhood about the issues that matter means, to some extent, I’m flying blind,” on community concerns, Perks says.

“I don’t foresee any time soon asking 100 people to meet me in a church basement.”