There are very few public servants who become synonymous with a major project, but in the case of Chris Murray, who will soon leave Hamilton to become Toronto City Manager, it was in his work on the Red Hill Expressway that he made his name. Prior to Murray’s arrival the project had been buffeted by political winds—cancellation by the NDP Rae government, reinstatement under Mike Harris, followed by another near-death experience at the hands of the federal Liberals. Through it all, including a challenge by aboriginal groups Murray kept his eye on the ball and the project was ultimately completed in 2007. With the project nearing completion Murray moved over to head up the political graveyard of Hamilton Housing, in order to gain new experience.
After a short stint in Public Housing Murray was selected over a wide field of internal and external candidates to become Hamilton’s City Manager. None of Murray’s predecessors had finished out their terms so, in retrospect it is remarkable that he survived almost a decade in the high-pressure post. How did he manage to last ten years? “I don’t know,” Murray admitted. “I probably earned their respect when I was working on Red Hill. I think they saw me as someone they could work with, someone who would be up for a challenge…I try to listen to what people are saying and try to see how we can make things work…I loved the job. There is such a thing as productive stress and there was a lot of stress on the job…but its good stuff.”
While he sees the Toronto posting as “a pretty incredible opportunity,” Murray knows he won’t escape controversy over transit. At the end of the day he says it’s about accommodating a huge growth in population that is just around the corner. “Toronto is expected to grow from 2.8 million to 3.8 in 20 years. Including Hamilton, the GTAH will grow from 6.2 to 9 million people.” In discussing Transit for Hamilton, where Murray had to adjust to the polar opposite views of Mayors Bob Bratina and Fred Eisenberger on LRT—a tricky task, he hinted that he still favours the bus-based BLAST system which he says was one of his early visions for Hamilton. BLAST came from GRIDS (Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy). “GRIDS was why I came to the region. I was hired to help bring Red Hill to fruition but I was interested in coordinating land use and infrastructure, especially roads and transit. When I was being hired here I raised the issue and my boss said go ahead and try it, and within 6 months we had a structure in place for a plan and that became GRIDS and out of that came the corridors and nodes concept which led to BLAST—a transit system to serve those nodes and corridors.”
During the Bratina Mayoralty Chris Murray was the lead in trying to organize his counterparts in area municipalities to pressure the provincial government to look at alternate goods movement corridors like the Niagara to GTA corridor which was shelved by the McGuinty-Wynne regime. The municipalities have to take the lead, Murray says because the province won’t take the risk. “We need to have the major transportation arteries working. If ever there was a moment for NGTA to solidify, it’s now. I can’t see the provincial government ever building another major 400 series highway. It’s going to be up to the municipalities to do their own highway planning—following provincial rules. Let us take the heat.” He suggests that Hamilton and Niagara could collaborate on some route planning and perhaps conduct an environmental study and then go to the senior governments for funding. At the federal level Hamilton MP Bob Bratina and Niagara MP Vance Badaway have been exploring the possible use of federal infrastructure money to assist in such a project, as an international trade corridor.
Murray hopes the recent sale of the vacant Stelco lands to Bedrock Industries isn’t a lost opportunity for not only Hamilton but for the senior governments in the form of taxes. “I do not get at all why the provincial government doesn’t appreciate the Bayfront lands as well as around our airport. Where is the interest by senior governments in making some money? One of the things for this new (Ford) government is to look at what can be done there.” Even though the land is now in Bedrock’s hands there is still a part to play by the City, Murray says. “Hamilton has a permitting role…we have a development role, we have an infrastructure role–it’s not like we are completely without opportunities here.”
While he is proud of the role he played in waterfront development, downtown redevelopment and the growth of industrial parks he says he is most proud of the work he initiated with the corporate culture of Hamilton which was recognized over the years as notoriously bad. “Working on corporate culture and performance measurement and just trying to improve the overall business acumen of our organization, I’m probably more proud of that than just about anything.” In the same category of corporate culture there are some regrets. “There are times when I should have been quicker to stand up for staff…You have to be careful about taking on every statement that is unfair. I realize we have to have thick skin but at the same time there are people in our organization that have great character, I sometimes wonder if my silence was the right thing to do,” Murray reflected.
With regard to who will succeed him, Chris Murray thinks that even with a full-fledged external search, there is talent on board in his management team. “Every person I hired to a leadership role in this community, I always did it with a view to replacing me. I think there is no shortage of people who can come in and fill my shoes and do a fantastic job and really take the administration further than I did,” he said. Chris Murray takes up his new role in Toronto next month.