When Chris Murray was appointed Hamilton City Manager at the end of 2008, he stepped into a role that had been something of a minefield. Two previous holders of the job had been fired and his immediate predecessor had quit with a year left on his contract. City managers had been a lightning rod for criticism from councillors since the position was created at amalgamation. Chris Murray’s problem was exacerbated by the fact that he inherited a senior management team, several of whom thought they were better equipped than he for the job. Between the skeptics on his staff and the never-ending penchant for intrigue by councillors, it could be argued that Murray was, like the Gerry Rafferty song, beset by “clowns to the left…jokers to the right,” but Chris Murray prevailed in the end — surviving almost a decade in the job..
Murray quietly worked to improve the political culture – particularly relations between staff and council. Where before Murray’s tenure, staff were often publicly berated, today the interplay, at least in public meetings, is respectful and polite. The critical juncture came early in Murray’s tenure, when a city staffer was undergoing tough cross-examination by Councillor Terry Whitehead. When the councillor questioned the staffer’s truthfulness—Murray intervened, saying he would ask his management team to leave the room if this line of questioning continued, earning him the applause of his staff. Murray was able to get council to endorse an ambitious corporate culture initiative that, with some hiccups, is slowly becoming the norm.
75 years ago, Hamilton’s Thomas Baker McQuesten, looking back on a remarkable political career confided to a friend that in public life “we must do good by stealth.” And nowhere is that truer than in Hamilton municipal affairs, where there is great danger in being seen as too “out there” on any issue or initiative. Chris Murray navigated the tightrope on critical issues like LRT, managing to pivot between the regimes of Bob Bratina who opposed LRT, to that of Fred Eisenberger who has staked his political future on promoting the transit system. That said, relations between the two could best be described as correct. Amazingly after nearly a decade in what has to be the most difficult job at Hamilton City Hall, Chris Murray has retained his idealism about public service, constantly searching for new ideas and better ways of doing things. He leaves the Hamilton municipal government in better shape than he found it, and he deserves the public’s gratitude and best wishes in his new role as Toronto’s top bureaucrat.