TUNE IN: What's your city councillor doing during the pandemic?

Blue sky over Toronto City Hall, winter 2016

The Jerry Agar Show reached out to all 25 of them to find out how they are serving you from home. You'll hear some of what they had to say at 9:30 on NEWSTALK 1010.


Ward 1 - Michael Ford

Over the past two months, I have been coping in similar ways to a lot of my fellow Torontonians. It hasn't been the easiest, but I'm making the best of it. I have certainly taken a stronger focus on physical and mental health by making home cooked meals, getting in a daily early-morning social distancing walk to clear my mind, and catching up with friends over video chats.

Usually I prefer meeting my constituents at their doorsteps. But since that is currently not possible, I stay in touch with residents, community groups, local businesses, long-term care staff and other stakeholders over the phone or through virtual meetings. Through these conversations, I've been able to better understand their needs and concerns stemming from COVID-19. In turn, I have been having regular conversations with Mayor Tory's office, senior city officials and the Provincial government to relay these concerns coming from my residents in North Etobicoke and to develop programs and support for them.

The most common issues I've been helping my residents with is connecting them to resources that are available to them during COVID-19. Usually this consists of community support like food banks or financial support available from all three levels of government. I also send out various forms of communication to my residents every week that include relevant information on COVID-19 and supports that may fit their needs.

My office has remained fully operational by phone and email throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, my staff have certainly had to adapt. Rather than being in office, my staff are working remotely, with the exception of one person per day in the office to answer live calls, while respecting social distancing measures. A big change has been doing office-wide conference calls, so that myself and my staff are able to check in on each other to make sure everyone is managing this stressful situation.

(In response to the question how he is impacted by a smaller city council,) In terms of COVID-19 response, the impact has certainly been positive. It has made coordinating with my council colleagues and the Mayor's office much more efficient and streamlined. It also made our virtual City Council meeting more efficient and orderly…imagine a virtual meeting with 44 or 47 councillors!

Advocacy has also become more effective. With a smaller council, each councillor has a larger voice, which allows us to advocate for increased numbers of residents, businesses and community groups.


Ward 2 - Stephen Holyday

Thanks for your inquiry. The Mayor has selected me as one of two Councillors tasked to help with the planning for the City's recovery and restoration efforts, and I have been thinking a lot about our City services and what has changed due to Covid-19. I believe the things that people have been contacting me about are a good indicator of what's important to Citizens from our municipal government.

Pre-Covid-19:
I have a small but skilled team in my office that has adjusted to serving a larger Ward 2 with new communities. I think we have adapted well and found that issues in the new parts of the Ward are the same as the old part, there are just more calls now. The most challenging part of the newer, larger, Ward was an increase in demand to attend public events or community organization meetings as a guest. These often conflict and converge on evenings and weekends. With Covid-19, it's less of an issue. 
Our calls for assistance from constituents are cyclical in nature and change with seasons, with calls increasing as people spend time outdoors and often spike following a storm event. Our top call categories are easily identified as: 1) transportation and roads 2) parks 3) by-law enforcement.
Councillors have access to aggregated business intelligence data from 311 calls. Trends are a bit different than calls to the Councillor's office, but are a good indicator. Ward 2 makes about 1500-2000 calls to 311 per month. Calls in March/April 2020 are sharply down from the prior year in particular for transportation, garbage pick-up and Toronto Water issues.  The chart below illustrates some changes to call volume and subject over the months. Looking closer at March and April 2020 details suggest some internally generated requests regarding Forestry and MLS have increased the reported numbers higher than what would represent calls from the public.
  
Since Covid-19:
 
March Break typically reduces activity, but with the acceleration of Covid-19 into a full emergency there was a sudden and pronounced change. Calls to the office and email on constituency matters and government policy dropped-off as all eyes monitored the news. My office continued to function, and it felt very much like the few days in between Christmas and New Year's Day when City Hall, and the city for the most part, is quiet. We have established routines in these times to work remotely which performed well because of the excellent technical support from the Public Service. The declaration of an emergency changes in the role of Councillors. Decision-making was removed from Council and placed in the hands of the Public Service and the Mayor according to the plans. Although Council committees have been suspended, some of the boards I serve on have continued to function through digital meetings. 
Councillors have been asked to route Covid-19 related requests for information and action through the City's Emergency Operation Centre, which creates a new way for me to interact with Public Service. I'm not able to pick up the phone to resolve an issue like I had in the past. Both my team and I have adapted to receiving a large volume of fluctuating information dispensed to Councillors, and processing it into daily news letters, tweets, and edits to my website to ensure important information is disseminated to my constituents. A sample is here:  https://mailchi.mp/da5cf842b952/update-on-covid-19-april-10-7836130
 
In April call volumes to my office regarding constituency matters had largely returned. We spent a lot of time answering emails and returning phone calls to residents and local organizations, and participating in digital meetings. Some of the things that we have been working on:
 
Going Forward:
 
I consider myself lucky to have work available, and the ability to continue to do it through digital systems. However technology cannot replace face to face meetings and public events which support decision making by Council and by the various tribunals and committees. I am concerned about Citizens feeling connected to and confident in government, and ensuring that decision-making remains open and accessible. I expressed this point in the digital Council meeting last week when I opposed a sole source contract to build 250 supportive housing units by September without clear public consultation or even basic details such as the locations. The financial impact and changes have occurred at a pace and magnitude experienced once in a generation. I think the time is now for Council to prepare a financial plan to move forward through Covid-19 with the understanding that things cannot be the same as they were only two months ago. With a cost in the billions, we must evaluate what are important needs, versus what is nice to have, and temper our decisions accordingly. Examining the kind of calls made to my office over the past two months, and the growing list of queued up permit and license requests provide a very good sense about what is important to the Citizens that I serve.

Ward 3 - Mark Grimes

First-off, I've shifted my office operations to 7 days a week. We had planned ahead and set ourselves up to be able to work from home, both by email and to answer the phones. My staff and I meet regularly - virtually - and I'm in constant contact with the City's Emergency Operation Centre and very regular contact with Mayor Tory, Premier Ford, our local MP and MPP. 
 
I normally send out an eNews every Friday, but there's new information coming out several times a day, so I've been putting out eNews several times a week and posting to social media several times a day.
 We've been dealing with a huge range of issues, from what to do after the death of a loved one, to what exactly is allowed in a park, how to get permits, what to do if you're being evicted, crowding in our waterfront parks, non- essential businesses still operating, power outages, construction, speeding, you name it. But there have also been a lot of people reaching out because they want to help and are not sure where to start. Our community in Etobicoke Lakeshore is so fantastic and I'm happy to say we've been able to make some great connections between people who want to help and those who need it.
 
I've also been speaking with lots of local businesses who need help and government support to keep afloat during this time. Every level of government has pulled together to find ways to help everyone weather this pandemic, but I know we still need to do more.


Ward 7 - Anthony Peruzza

It's a struggle. Our Ward has a very proportion of people that are financially precarious and often do not know how or where to reach out for help. Councillor Perruzza has been meeting with people over the phone. He calls constituents to check on them. Collectively our office has called through about 1/3 of all the district, but it's a lot of people and there are more languages and more new Canadians here than in other places in Toronto. We have staff that speak different languages so we are trying to utilize that to get information out to constituents with language barriers. That is working very well, we have been able to identify many people in need. Connect them with help, food, medical assistance, etc. The staff like doing this, you feel like you get to help. We've met with organizations, churches, groups, institutions to check on them and see what they need and how they are coping.

We have also tried to do new things. There is a lot more content online, because more people are at home on their phones. We did a telephone town hall as well, that went very well. Lots of questions from people. We partnered with local BIA's to get information out.


Ward 9 - Ana Bailao
 
We have multiple ways to keep our residents updated and informed.  Every weekday we send out a "News Release" that summarizes any announcements or issues that have come forward that day from all levels of government and from other agencies.  We continue to respond to every e-mail and call that comes into the office.  We update multiple times a day on our social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Website, etc.).  The Councillor has hosted virtual town hall meetings where residents can ask questions or express concerns.  The Councillor has recorded videos reminding residents about physical distancing, etc.  We have also been proactively calling our constituents and organizations to check on them and have been hosting regular calls with all our BIAs (14 organizations).
 
The issues that residents request help with are wide-ranging.  Naturally, we have had a high volume of inquiries related to Covid-19 and issues ranging from regulations within parks, to income support programs to basic information requests as well as assistance with ongoing community issues not directly associated with the public health emergency.
 
The Councillor and staff have been working at home remotely and have adapted to allow for a fully functioning office, albeit operating remotely.  We have a staff meeting every morning (6 days a week) at 9:00 am to go over any inquiries, issues that require attention and direction and to plan out what will have to be done that day.  So, while there are unique challenges, the Councillor's office has adapted and is functioning service residents.
 
As under normal circumstances, there is a considerably high volume of work for and on behalf of our residents.  This public health emergency has added to this of course as people in the ward contend with a variety of issues related to this situation. 


Ward 15 - Jaye Robinson

Our team remains in daily contact with the residents of Ward 15 through all the traditional methods - we are still answering phone calls and responding to emails. We are also conducting virtual community meetings through the many technology options available to us. We know that prompt and efficient responses are essential in these uncertain times and strive to answer every inquiry we receive within a few hours. While none of these alternatives can replace spending time in our local neighbourhoods, meeting with residents face-to-face and witnessing issues on-the-ground, we're doing our best to stay connected with the local community in these challenging times. Typically, the Councillor sends out monthly Ward 15 eNewsletters. We have now shifted to weekly and sometimes daily Ward-wide communications to ensure that residents have access to the most up-to-date information on COVID-19. 

Primarily, we are answering questions and providing clarification on the many different regulations, recommendations, and restrictions in place by all three levels of government. The news changes on an hourly basis, so one of our key responsibilities is to ensure that people know what is being asked of them. Our team is also helping out with a number of community initiatives and have facilitated donations of PPE to Sunnybrook hospital and other frontline workers. We have also been advocating for the support our residents and small business owners need to get through this challenging period. Recently, we launched a "Shop Local, Eat Local" campaign to promote local businesses in Ward 15. We regularly update our local BIAs on the programs and supports available from all three levels of government. Tenant issues continue to be a focus, particularly in our high-rise communities, and our team plays an important role communicating concerns to building management and involving City staff as required. 

Like many other workplaces, we have transitioned to a work from home model.  While we are able to complete most of our work remotely, we normally spend a significant amount of time out in the local community consulting and meeting with residents, so it has been an adjustment to conduct those meetings virtually.  Under the 25-ward model, community engagement has become more important than ever. The Councillor now represents more than 100,000 residents. As a team, we often rely on local residents and stakeholders - our eyes and ears on the ground - to let us know when there is an issue to be addressed. Communication is key.


Ward 23 - Cynthia Lai

We are currently doing our best to adapt to the new norm; conference calls, virtual video meetings and an ever changing needs assessment and prioritization.
 
Councillor Lai was one of the first to begin raising awareness to the need for PPE for medical professional and front line workers , as well as the need to support local Food banks.  To this end Councillor Lai initiated a PPE challenge, which has donated over 25000 mask to several hospitals and senior facilities,  and the Scarborough Easter Food Challenge, which raised over 3 tons of food for local food banks.( Details listed below.)
 
As well Councillor Lai has been leading the Mayor's Economic Recovery Task Force - Cultural communities.  We have been hosting virtual round table  meetings with Asian cultural communities (including the Chinese, Mandarin, Tamil, Hakka, Taiwanese & Philipino). The task force has heard first-hand the hardships and assistance needed from the various communities and has been working very hard to provide City of Toronto supports as well as advocating to the Provincial and Federal governments for supports.  Many of the concerns are well known business that are closed or limited in their ability to operate unable to pay rent, bills and employees. Residents that aren't working and are unable to provide for themselves and their families. 
 
Councillor Lai continues to advocate for a multi-lingual communication strategy.
Now more than ever we need to embrace our multiculturalism and support each other by communicating in a manner that everyone can understand. We heard in our roundtable discussions that many business owners and cultural groups are successful at their business as they fully understand the industry they are in.  They have worked diligently to conform and understand all Federal, Provincial and municipal regulations (specific to their industry).  In saying that, many do not communicate and fully  understand English.  With the closure of non-essential business, many operators do not have an understanding of the communications on COVID-19 and regulations.  This has created and reinforced the feeling of isolation and not being a part of the foundation or strength of our economy and City.  Creating a multilingual communication strategy that shares all information and resources will strengthen the relationship with our cultural communities.
In order for the recovery to have the greatest results and success, we need to ensure everyone fully understands the assistance and recovery programs and communications available.  This will be important if we want to move forward as one community. Councillor Lais takes the health of our staff and our community with the greatest of care. In order to support public health efforts, the Councillor Lai Team has been working offsite.  Our staff are available to serve our community from our out-of-office locations - through email, telephone, and video conference.  We remain committed to providing the highest level of professional service during these challenging times. 
 
Councillor Lai continues to work with our city departments to help transition back to providing city services.  It seems now more than ever the daily exchange of information sharing is a top priority.
While we sometimes feel isolated during quarantine we continue to stay strong together. Daily staff conference calls and virtual meetings help.  We continue to provide community updates via social media and other communication mediums.  We are proud of how the community has come together during this difficult time. The success of Councillor Lai's PPE and Scarborough Easter Food challenge are just small examples of neighbours pitching in to do what they can.   Councillor Lai will continue to deliver working for the community of Scarborough North and the City of Toronto. With all that is going on around us we are grateful for our front line workers and essential workers.  They are the heroes.


Ward 25 - Jennifer McKelvie

1.    How do they stay in contact with constituents?  
We still have the same phone numbers which are forwarded and answered by staff. Same for Emails. The councillor also calls as many constituents back as possible every week.  The Councillor has also participated on several Facebook live style events.  She has also joined calls with our MP and MPP with whom she has a good working relationship. We publish a weekly e-newsletter with information. 
We also have printed a one page resource document about food services and other supports and dropped them at the local food banks and TCHC building to support residents in need. The councillor is also known to answer online posts herself in real time and also takes calls on her cell phone.
 
2.    What are the most common issues you are helping with?
Food security:  facilitating supplies, connecting those in need to resources.Complaints about long term care homes. Enforcement Complaints:  Fun Police.  We understand the need for physical distancing; however, a four year old in a park with a ball being supervised by their parent does not warrant an intervention from an enforcement officer.  We need some common sense. 
 
 3.    How have you (their staff) had to adapt? With a smaller council your wards are much larger, how does that impact things?
 We are new so it's hard to compare to how things were before; however,  we are supposed to be busy and we won't complain about working.  There are people who have lost their jobs and they are the people that are having to adapt.   We are happy to be working for the community and to help where we can.  No complaints.


Several councillors spoke with Jerry Agar. You'll hear some of what they had to say on Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m.
They include: 
Ward 4 - Gord Perks
Ward 6 - James Pasternak
Ward 11 - Michael Layton
Ward 14 - Paul Fletcher
Ward 17 - Shelley Carrol
Ward 18 - John Filion
Ward 19 - Brad Bradford

The Jerry Agar Show reached out to all 25 city councillors on April 30th. The following councillors did not respond or did not provide a comment/arrange for an interview in time: Frances Nunziata, Mike Colle, Joe Cressy, Josh Matlow, Krystan Wong-Tam, Denzil Minnan-Wong, Gary Crawford, Michael Thompson, Jim Karagiannis, Paul Ainslie