COVID-19 councillor check-in

City Hall Watcher #64: talking to Councillor Brad Bradford about working during a pandemic, some transit charts for future reference & more!

Hey again. This week: a new recurring feature that will recur for as long as this whole thing recurs. I’m going to chat with members of Toronto Council about how they’re holding up during the pandemic.

Up first is Councillor Brad Bradford, who tells me how Beaches-East York is handling COVID-19. We talk about how he’s doing his job from his kitchen table during these times of physical distancing, the need to cut back on red tape at City Hall, and what makes him feel optimistic during these turbulent times. Also: he’s got a book recommendation.

In addition to the interview, I’ll dig into the archives for some charts about transit ridership and transit funding.

Matt Elliott / @GraphicMatt / /

Watcher/Talker: Brad Bradford on a councillor’s life during COVID-19

Brad Bradford’s temporary office in his home. Photo courtesy Brad Bradford

This past Thursday I spoke to Councillor Brad Bradford, who reps Ward 19 (Beaches-East York). We talked on the phone. Obviously. I was curious about what the day-to-day is like for councillors during these very strange and turbulent times.

This interview has been edited for length.

Matt Elliott: So how is Beaches-East York doing?

Brad Bradford: Well, these are obviously unprecedented times. But, you know, panicking is really a complete waste of time. The challenges are totally different. Communication and the way that we’re communicating with residents is different. But in many respects, the job is the same. It’s responding to people and responding to your constituents, then building capacity and working through the challenges to try to find solutions.

You’re trying to address the concerns of people in Ward 19, but you’re also trying to respond to challenges that are very much citywide issues. And that is how I try and approach the job every day. First and foremost, it’s taking care of the community, but also making sure that we’re responding and moving the needle on the citywide issues. So in that respect, it’s very much the same. But the way we’re doing it and the responses that are needed right now are different. 

ME: Walk me through your day — I assume you’re working out of the house.

BB: Yeah, primarily out of the house. I’m still doing curbside drop-off or pick-up for food to support local businesses where possible. But generally, I’m in the home office here, which is just the kitchen table. 

Right now we’re receiving between 100 to 150 individual e-mail correspondences every day. So that is high. And a lot of people in uncertain times are reaching out for clarification. They are looking for certainty. And that’s challenging for everyone because we are in uncertain times.

So my team is working through that. You start to build out capacity on status updates on the different files: people who are reaching out because they’re concerned about rent, local businesses concerned about whether or not they are essential services, young families concerned about whether or not it’s safe to go to a park. So you get a lot of the same sort of questions and you build that capacity and then you’re able to provide them with the most current information.

The challenge, of course, is that everything is so fluid and dynamic right now. You could have an update at 10 a.m. and that response could change by 3 p.m. So the rate and the pace at which updates are happening is the challenge that I think is universal right now. For likely all of my colleagues, as well as all levels of government — it’s just communicating the most recent most up-to-date information for something that is moving extremely fast and is extremely fluid.

The top issues that I’m generally hearing about are supporting local businesses, supporting self-employed people, concern around a lack of social distancing, people requesting a stiffer or more stringent approach to the lockdown — I’m actually hearing a lot of calls for that —and assistance for renters.

So what does my day look like? I do a 9 a.m. call. I do an 11 a.m. call. I do a 3 p.m. call. Those are mainly teleconferences with small businesses. Then in the evenings, I’m talking to residents. Last night, I had a Bengali teleconference — I have a very large Bengali population here in the ward. And again, you think of new Canadians and those communities. It’s challenging enough for people to understand what’s going on right now. And now add language barriers or barriers related to technology to the mix. You really need to make extra effort to ensure that we’re communicating effectively to all Torontonians.

ME: You were sounding the alarm about small businesses and retail businesses before this happened. This kicks that into overdrive. 

BB: This gets back to how I’m working on both the small things and the big things. Like here’s a small thing: I have Michael Garrett Hospital in my ward. It’s one of the COVID-19 testing centres. People are working around the clock there. Additional staff and resources have been called in. So I was able to secure additional parking spaces for hospital staff. That’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference for those people who are showing up every day to take care of us.

On the bigger picture, it’s about relief and support for small business. So as part of the mayor’s Economic Support Recovery Taskforce, I’ve been tapped to lead our response on local business, and it’s obviously a topic I’m really passionate about. But it’s also something that I think is so desperately needed. And I’m really concerned that so many of our main streets and our local businesses are not going to make it through this. And that’s the emotional part of this. I’m on the phone hearing firsthand about the heartbreaking impacts.

And they’re worried that what they’re hearing from government right now is not going to adequately address the problem. When you hear the federal government going on about airlines and hotels, I understand that those are big employers and big sectors of our economy, but if you talk to residents about what they care about most, it’s the community and it’s the local businesses on the main street.

So as part of the task force I've been reaching out and I set up a survey. I’ve had 232 responses as of 1 p.m. [Thursday] just telling me what the impacts are for them personally right now, and what short term measures would help. And when we get to the other side of this, what can we do to help then?

ME: The short-term response is obviously the priority right now, but are there longer term things that, when things do get back to some kind of normal, you’re going to be looking at in terms of policy or report requests — lessons that you’ve learned in this? 

BB: I think on the other side of this it really is an opportunity for us to modernize, to streamline and to simplify our processes. There’s lots of opportunity to reduce red tape. I don’t mean that in a clichéd way. I just mean the fact that there are so many layers of process that are just additive. You know, year after year, we just add another process to things that shouldn’t be so difficult.

Whether that’s street permits or park permits or licensing from MLS, it shouldn’t be so challenging to get the basic city services done and delivered. And yet right now, this has obviously thrown us a loop and we’re seeing just how challenging all that is. So we need to improve our coordination. We need to improve our process. And this may be the catalyst that we need to do that.

But we also need attitudes to change — we need an open mindedness and a willingness to make that change.

ME: To end on a positive note, what are the things that you’ve seen in Beaches-East York that made you stop and think, well, hey, people are good? Tell me about some moments of optimism. 

BB: I think you’re seeing it in Beaches-East York and across the city. In this community, neighbours are coming together to help each other out in a time of need — recognizing that it’s difficult when we have requirements for physical distancing.

There are some really creative responses to show support and keep morale up. On my street, for example, one of my neighbours coordinated a window art display where each day we have a theme of artwork. And the kids and parents and people like me are drawing artwork and posting it up in the window so that when they take a walk outside, they can see that we’re all in this together — and it’s something productive to do in the house with the kids. And it’s a feel good moment.

So yesterday’s theme was animals. I think today’s theme is travel. And you’re getting all these different pictures put up in people’s front windows on our street.

There has also been a huge outpouring of support from residents just wanting to get involved and get engaged. So we’ve been helping to coordinate that. But I think you’re seeing an outpouring of support across the city from people who have time, capacity and resources to help. I signed up to donate blood, and I know many of my residents are doing the same. And a lot of the time slots are full. So people are responding to that call from Canadian Blood Services to donate blood.

I think that you’re seeing a lot of support online as well, because that’s where a lot of our communication has been directed. Some social media, Facebook groups, people just reaching out, looking to support and making sure that we’re all checking in on our neighbours. I was on that call with the Bengali community last night and what they’re doing is making phone calls for people who can’t get groceries, and then people who are able-bodied are going out and getting groceries and just dropping them off in front of their door.

We have a local supermarket, Victoria Supermarket on Victoria Park, and they’re offering meat and rice for families who need a little bit of extra support — and that’s just free. You don’t need to buy anything. They’re just giving it away. We also have small businesses who are coordinating to deliver perishables to food banks. Now with all the restaurants closed, there’s a lot of perishable goods and supplies that are not needed right now. And they’re coordinating to drop those off and make sure that we’re getting them into hands of people.

In times of crisis we come together as a community. People step up. They know that it’s collective action that’s going to get us through this.

ME: Last question. I know you’re probably too busy right now for this kind of thing, but a lot of people are stuck at home and maybe getting a bit bored. Any TV, movie or book recommendations you can drop on us? 

BB: I’ve been reading Samantha Power’s book, The Education of an Idealist. I also saw that Netflix just dropped a Hillary Clinton documentary. I haven’t gotten into that yet, but I saw that that’s one of the new releases. That’s probably something that I would check out. But you know, truthfully, the days are actually pretty jammed. 

Vicious cycle: a cautionary tale for the TTC — in charts

The Toronto Star’s Ben Spurr published a piece last week with updated numbers on how much the TTC is losing each week due to low ridership. The tab so far? $18 million a week.

That’s a staggering sum. It’ll require a massive bailout. And it is likely at some point to raise the spectre of cutting transit expenditures, especially if ridership is slow to recover on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Spurr’s article, Councillor Gord Perks warns against service cuts, citing the potential for a vicious cycle.

Some transit watchers say they’ve seen this scenario before, and it didn’t play out well for the TTC. Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park), said that when the recession of the early 1990’s started to eat into TTC ridership, the city responded by reducing transit service and raising fares.

According to Perks, that caused a vicious cycle in which transit became less reliable, leading to fewer people riding, which in turn was used to justify further service cuts.

I was curious about whether anyone had ever looked into the TTC service cuts of the 1990s and the eventual recovery, and it turns out someone did.

This is going to sound a bit egotistical, but it was me.

In 2011, I published Karen Stintz and Rob Ford’s TTC problem: there are too many riders.

The post includes this chart, showing the decline of TTC ridership in the 1990s:

And this chart, showing the decline of government subsidies for the TTC in the same period:

And then this chart, which I made myself, showing the huge investment that led to a major ridership recovery — eventually breaking records — in the aughts.

Might be worth keeping these handy for transit funding debates that could crop up in the months ahead.

More from Matt: on how the COVID-19 shelter crisis could have been less disastrous

For the Toronto Star last week, I wrote about how governments could have taken steps to decrease crowding in the shelter system long before COVID-19 became a pandemic. The things shelter workers are doing now are incredible — and heroic — but this crisis lays bare the systemic issues that were left unaddressed for years.

This week, I’ll turn my attention to Airbnb. Landlords are abandoning the service and scrambling to find long-term tenants! And I’m feeling pretty good about it. Look for it tomorrow.

In other news

The week at Toronto City Hall

It’s back! After a brief hiatus, the Bid Award Panel — responsible for awarding contracts to bidders — will resume meeting this Wednesday over teleconference. It’s the last bastion of the old municipal structure. I’ve missed it.

WEDNESDAY: 🏆 Bid Award Panel contract award of the week: $15.7 million for the construction of a childcare facility at 1234 Weston Road.

City Hall Watcher #64

In honour of the 64th issue, here’s a quick list of my favourite Nintendo 64 games: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Paper Mario, Goldeneye 007, WCW/nWo Revenge, Jet Force Gemini.

Thanks for reading! Hope you dug the interview with Councillor Bradford. If you have suggestions for other councillors I should talk to, I’d love to hear them! Just reply to this message to get in touch with me.

Next week: good news — staff are still updating the Lobbyist Registry! So I’ll bring you a fresh edition of LOBBYIST WATCH. See you on Monday. Until then, stay safe and stay home.