One-fifth of the MPPs who normally make up the Ontario legislature returned to Queen's Park today for an emergency session to pass two pieces of legislation, one of which would allow municipalities to meet electronically during the COVID-19 state of emergency.
The change is captured in the new Municipal Emergency Act, which passed third reading after 15 minutes of debate in the legislature and amends the Municipal Act and the City of Toronto Act. The legislation also overrides municipal noise by-laws so that groceries and other goods can be delivered to stores across the province 24/7.
The legislation was passed unanimously by 26 MPPs from all parties who also supported a separate bill aimed at protecting workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government said the Municipal Emergency Act would ensure "the delivery of goods to Ontario's businesses and consumers isn't impacted by municipal noise by-laws that may unintentionally be impeding such deliveries when they are most urgently needed."
Premier Doug Ford first announced this step during a press conference on Thursday afternoon, saying it would help ensure store shelves are stocked since some bylaws don't allow for deliveries at certain times. The past week has seen Ontarians flocking to stores and filling up shopping carts with goods — a primary one being toilet paper — with politicians at all levels urging people not to hoard supplies.
"Please don’t hoard and don’t panic buy," said Ford, stressing that the the province's supply chain is still strong. "Please do not hoard the toilet paper."
"These changes will assist in getting goods to market in a more expeditious manner. Our government wants to do everything we can to help connect distribution centres with grocery stores and pharmacies to replenish empty shelves more quickly," said Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark.
Speaking in the legislature, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was "very supportive" of the change and called it a "very practical move" that would ensure all kinds of goods are able to move around the province to meet the needs of Ontarians.
Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter highlighted the plight of some individuals with limited incomes who aren't able to stockpile items. Goods need to be on the shelves when these people go to the store, Hunter said.
Clark said the portion of the legislation related to council meetings would allow municipalities to "respond quickly and continue to function when in-person meetings cannot be held, and council decisions need to be made."
Jim Ginn, Huron County's warden, said the change was discussed during a conference call on March 17 with Clark, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams. It was the same day that Ford declared a state of emergency in the province, restricting public gatherings to less than 50 people and mandating the closure of child-care centres, libraries, community centres, theatres and bars and restaurants (except for those providing takeout or delivery services).
Several municipalities have been calling for the legislation governing municipal procedures to be amended, with Ginn calling the passing of the new legislation a "very positive step."
"We’re certainly in unprecedented times," Ginn said. "This isn’t something that we would normally want to do, but these aren’t normal times and we’re doing what we need to do and we think this is the right way to move forward."
He said the amendment was needed because previously they needed to have a quorum (50 per cent plus one) of council members physically present at a meeting.
"With this COVID-19 crisis, we are trying to take the recommendations from the province and from our local health units and keep our distance and not to congregate, so we wanted the power to hold a council meeting with everyone participating electronically," Ginn said, adding that as municipal representatives, they need to set an example for community members.
Joe DiPaola, deputy mayor for Richmond Hill, also pushed for the amendment in a letter to Ford and Clark on March 17.
"During these unprecedented times all levels of government are actively working together to address the COVID-19 virus outbreak," DiPaola wrote. "The City of Richmond Hill is committed to supporting the Government of Ontario in limiting the spread of COVID-19, including by closing all public facilities and limiting gatherings to less than 50 people."
He went on to request that Ontario "grant special permission to hold electronic council and committee meetings, which are currently prohibited under the Municipal Act, 2001."
"Council meetings are essential to maintaining municipal operations," DiPaola wrote. "Providing municipalities with the ability to conduct electronic meetings will help ensure all municipalities have the ability to make timely decisions in response to the current health emergency."
Brian Rosborough, executive director of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, offered his gratitude to all MPPs for "supporting this legislation and recognizing the importance of the House leaders working together in situations such as this."
He said municipal staff are increasingly working from home with both provincial and federal officials encouraging social distancing to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"It was inevitable that this additional authority would be needed under social distancing practices and circumstances," Rosborough said.
He said it's important municipalities be able to continue meeting and making decisions.
"Municipalities have a very important role to play in the response to COVID-19 in managing the situation and communities and ultimately in the recovery of economic activity," he said. "This will help the public to remain confident that municipalities are well-positioned to continue to provide essential services and supports in the community."
Photo Credit: Steve Russell/Toronto Star