Toronto was 'confusing,' 'inconsistent' on ticketing people in parks during early pandemic: ombudsman

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Playgrounds in city parks across Toronto were taped off and closed to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the early part of the pandemic. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC - image credit)
Playgrounds in city parks across Toronto were taped off and closed to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the early part of the pandemic. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC - image credit)

Toronto's attempt to crack down on residents sitting at park benches or picnic tables and violating early COVID-19 rules was in some cases unfair, inconsistent and confusing, the city's ombudsman says.

In a new report released Friday, Ombudsman Susan Opler determined while bylaw officers enforced restrictions by handing out $750 and $1,000 tickets, they did so in places without clear signage or not blocked off by caution tape.

The report also found that in two instances, bylaw enforcement officers "discriminated against racialized park users."

One "bylaw officer allegedly told a racialized woman he ticketed for using a picnic table, 'You people need to learn,'" the report said.

The report looked at a six week period from April 2 to May 15, 2020 during which enforcement officers handed out at least 280 tickets in city parks. In it, the ombudsman raises questions about many aspects of the city's approach, including confusing rules and communications, the degree to which bylaw officers could use their discretion and outdated or inaccurate information on how people could fight their tickets.

"I deeply appreciate everything staff at the City of Toronto have done to keep people safe during this pandemic," Opler said in a news release. "Their efforts have been heroic, especially early on when circumstances and provincial directions changed almost daily."

Most of the 10 people who complained to the ombudsman's office felt that they were being penalized not for flouting COVID-19 rules, but rather because they were unaware of them or misinformed, Opler said. They were reluctant to return to parks after, afraid they'd be ticketed for another rule they were unaware of.

"How the city communicated the rules about park use, how it trained bylaw enforcement officers to enforce them and how it communicated ticket dispute options created a climate of unfairness..." she concluded.

During the inquiry, Opler made several immediate recommendations which the release said the city quickly implemented.

In the report release Friday, the ombudsman made another 14 recommendations including that the city:

  • Create a policy to ensure timely, coordinated and accessible communication to communicate changes about city services and facilities to the public

  • Immediately notify municipal licensing and standards staff that a "zero tolerance" policy is unacceptable

  • Develop and anti-racism strategy to eliminate racial profiling from bylaw enforcement

The news release goes on to say the city manager supports the recommendations and that the city will implement them.

The ombudsman will review the city's progress on a quarterly basis.

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