Corp Comm Connects

Toronto city council extends Mayor John Tory’s emergency powers at first-ever virtual meeting
May 1, 2020
Jennifer Pagliaro

Council unanimously decided on Thursday to extend Mayor John Tory’s emergency powers indefinitely during the COVID-19 pandemic, voting one-by-one over a video call during an unprecedented virtual meeting.

Twenty-five members of council met for the first time since March 6 from separate home and city hall offices to deal with urgent business -- including whether Mayor John Tory could continue to make unilateral decisions on their behalf to protect residents’ health and safety.

Distancing rules in city parks and public squares were also extended until the emergency is declared over.

Tory told council he has not taken the decisions lightly and that they were made with advice from Toronto Public Health after concerns people were not properly following their advice.

“I knew I would be held to account for it here,” said Tory, who added that the need for the restrictions remains as the weather improves.

“I want people to feel a great sense of hope because there’s a lot of planning we’re doing on very positive events that can happen going forward, but we, I think, still need to send the message out -- and the by-law does part of it -- to say we’re still in a difficult situation here and that people still have to follow that social distancing especially as the weather gets nicer.”

Tory declared an emergency in Toronto on March 23, following a provincial declaration, and first took action on April 2 using his powers under city rules (to enact) the social distancing by-laws. Those rules required him to report to council within 30 days of those actions the justification for using that authority, which was on Thursday’s agenda.

The same city rules only give the mayor emergency powers for 30 days unless council decides to extend them.

The first two hours of a day-long meeting was dominated by councillors questioning whether they could meet safely in-person, instead of having virtual meetings during discussion of an item to authorize virtual meetings during emergencies -- something that has never happened before in council’s history.

Much time was taken up by a roll call-type vote where clerk Ulli Watkiss, stationed in a committee room at city hall, asked councillors -- displayed in a Brady Bunch-like formation on the public YouTube livestream -- whether they were in favour or not.

Council, as part of an omnibus motion moved by Tory on behalf of several councillors, voted to ask the other governments for help with several matters. That included support to maintain TTC service levels to comply with public health guidelines as the transit system bleeds money largely because of significantly decreased ridership.

Council also approved an expedited plan to build modular housing -- prefabricated units that can be designed and built quickly off-site and then craned into open locations -- to help house the homeless during the crisis. The plan presented by staff is expected to see 110 units built by September.

Some councillors took their turn to speak to address how the pandemic is exposing gaps in city services and systems that have left vulnerable people exposed during the outbreak.

Coun. Wong-Tam said the more difficult work, after the immediate response to the crisis, will be the long-term plans to rebuild.

“Those who are street-involved, those who are already frail, those who are immunocompromised, those who are living precariously waged as well as housed, who are living under violent situations, it’s getting worse and it’s getting far more crowded at the bottom,” she said. “If we don’t get the other orders of government to own up to the structural deficit that we are living here … we’re never going to get out of this problem.”

That includes, she said, mental health and housing supports for the homeless whose needs won’t be solved with a one-time injection of cash.

Coun. Gord Perks commended Torontonians for the important part they are playing in preventing the spread of the virus.

“People have lost loved ones, lost their income. They’ve lost their ability to move freely about the city that they helped to build, and, yet it’s because they’ve followed the advice of the Toronto public service, because they have made those sacrifices, because they have stepped up, the city of Toronto has not experienced the kind of crisis that we have seen in some other cities in the world,” he said. “Our successes are due to you Torontonians. Thank you.”