Learning the ropes of municipal politics during a pandemic

COVID-19 has hindered the number of public events that can take place in Kitchener since March 2020. Ward 8 Councillor Margaret Johnston said she tries to get out walking in her ward to see and talk to people who live there. Below, she is in Lakeside Park with her dog Angus.
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by Helen Hall
Kitchener Citizen
February 10, 2022

​​​​​After her first year as a municipal councillor, Margaret Johnston said she was just “hitting her stride” when the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world and also how local politics was handled.

​​Johnston was elected as the Ward 8 councillor for the first time in the fall of 2018 and was sworn in December 3. Her work began in earnest in January 2019, learning the rules of being a member of Kitchener City Council, the policies and procedures of the City of Kitchener and the Region of Waterloo, and dealing with the constituents in Ward 8.

​​“And then the rug was pulled out from underneath all of us,” Johnston said. No more seeing residents in person or attending meetings at Kitchener City Hall.

​​“I have learned a lot in my first term as a councillor,” Johnston said. However, the pandemic has hindered her ability to get to know her fellow councillors and city staff members better by sharing office staff or by chance meetings in the hallway to talk. “Our council has been amazing and very welcoming,” she said, adding she can pick up the phone at any time and call her colleagues to ask questions.

​​Johnston said she has relied heavily on Allison Remillard and Elizabeth Leacock, who are the Constituency Assistants to Council, to point her in the right direction when looking for information while she has been working from home.

​​ Johnston said early in her term, she was looking forward to a series of speakers organized by the city at the Victoria Hills Community Centre where she would be able to meet people from her ward. The meetings had to be cancelled because of COVID restrictions.

​​Other public meetings had to go on, but online rather than in person. A contentious issue in Ward 8, the proposal to build an 11 storey condominium on Belmont Avenue did give her the chance to meet many residents. Two neighbourhood meetings were held, along with 10 smaller Zoom meetings.

​​“But it’s the normal things you miss,” Johnston said. “Canada Day celebrations, Ribfest, the New Year’s levee.”

​​ Johnston is now ‘hitting her stride’ by taking the time to walk through her ward and meet as many people as she can.

​​ Johnston is proud of several of her accomplishments made during the pandemic. Following a fire in her ward in July 2021, she put forward a motion asking the Province of Ontario to amend the Fire Code to require self-closing hinges on doors in low rise residential buildings. This motion was supported by other municipal councils across Ontario.

​​And, following the comments of residents after the city cut down a well-loved tree in Lakeside Park, she helped to create a tree inventory that is accessible to residents. It lists trees of ‘community significance’ and gives people information on their health.

​​Johnston said a positive thing to come out of the pandemic is the ability for delegations to appear at council using Zoom. She said this might continue after council resumes meeting in person, because it is easier for some residents to appear online than to attend the council chamber.

​​“COVID-19 has been a challenge,” Johnston said. “We have good intentions to do our best.”