Note: In fairness to Chris, I intentionally did not ask Chris any questions about his political masters.
Welcome to 10 Tough Questions with Chris Murray. Comments welcomed.
1. What is it about your job, that surprised you the most after assuming the role of City Manager? Why did it come as a surprise?
Cal, when I started I said this was the best job in the city, just over one year has passed and I still believe that - although the challenges are significant. For example, on average 6.1% of household income in Hamilton is spent on municipal property taxes (this is the highest percentage of any municipality in Ontario with a population of 100,000 or more). This coupled with the fact that we are highly dependant on residential property tax (as opposed to commercial/industrial) means that the rising costs of services rests on the shoulders of our residents who in many cases live at or below the poverty line. I expect this situation will worsen in the next ten years as a greater number of baby boomers reach retirement age and their income levels will drop. None of this comes as surprise, in fact, a number of community collaborative are engaged to address poverty, living wage jobs, immigration, to name a few, with City staff working on each.
What was somewhat of a surprise to me was the degree to which we coordinate our actions to support this important work. When someone talks to me about economic development, for example, I assume we mean more than land use policy, zoning, road and sewer capacity, and incentives – the actions of two departments. The fact is municipal services such as public health, affordable housing, recreation, Ontario Works, and police services are also considerations we need to apply to solve these complex social challenges. My background as an environmental planner - working in public works and community services has proven to me the benefit of using a wider more integrated perspective. We are by no means an island doing this alone and therefore we must do more to ensure that we work as partners with the leadership in this community.
2. There was some speculation that you may not have been as warmly received by senior staff as would have been ideal, when you first were appointed to your position. To the extent that is true, has that situation resolved itself?
I joined the municipality in 1995 as an entry-level planner in the Special Projects Office where five years later, I directed the actions of that office and senior members in it to complete the Red Hill Valley Parkway. Some people are motivated by titles and power – I’m motivated by great work where the challenges are seemingly impossible and the people I work with are highly skilled and committed to working together to find solutions. I’m part of a new team - with two new members who officially came on half-way through last year. Anytime you add new people to a team you change its chemistry and have to spend time working together building respect and relationships. I can say without hint of reservation that this team is focused on solving the challenges mentioned in question 1 and are true professionals.
3. What is the most challenging part of your job and how are you addressing it?
I made a promise to myself last January that I would try to spend equal amounts of time working directly with the Mayor and members of Council, staff, and focusing on tasks that will help this community prosper. There are not enough hours in the week to accomplish this, so I set priorities and only select the key initiatives that require me to get involved. Matters that can be left in the capable hands of others are and I don’t micro-manage the results. For example, with the recent Pan-Am announcement and the upcoming LRT announcement I have to ensure as an organization we are ready to capitalize on these projects and link them to other initiatives that Council has identified as key strategic drivers – like downtown and waterfront redevelopment. This requires me to work closely with Council and Senior Management Team to ensure we are ready to deliver on these initiatives.
4. What do you say to Hamiltonians who travel to Toronto each day, to earn their living? Is Hamilton in danger of becoming a bedroom town to Toronto, and how do we arrest that trend and reverse it?
In the past 30 years we’ve transitioned from a community where people to work, to one where many are leaving to work in Halton, Peel and Metro Toronto. Therefore it’s not a question of “becoming a bedroom town”, because for some we already are. Arresting and reversing that trend would mean pretending the regional economy of the Golden Horseshoe can be controlled by Hamilton. Notwithstanding this, more businesses that offer living wage jobs are needed in Hamilton for the reasons I cited above in question 1.
Many of your readers an the community at large have heard recently that GO Transit has plans to expand all day service into Hamilton (as it is in Burlington) within the next three years which will improve the attractiveness of Hamilton to people that want more value for their residential dollar and reasonable access to jobs in the Greater Hamilton/Toronto Area. This again is already happening and the degree to which it continues depends on the vitality of our neighborhoods, quality of our environment, education system, health care system, service delivery ability, business environment, etc. Like roads, inter-regional rail travel is a two way track and more businesses are seeing the benefit of relocating here to take advantage of a diverse workforce, our institutions and development opportunities that are competitive on a number of fronts. I would tell Hamiltonians that work in Toronto to continue telling it like it is – yes we have our fair share of challenges but this is a great City.
5. You have some background in planning. What is the best strategic planning decision the city has made since you've been in your role?
I believe that the best strategic planning decision was Council’s approval of the City’s first Corporate Priority Plan in December 2009. The plan recognizes the challenges mentioned in my response to question 1 and directs Senior Management Team to develop a work plan by the end of March 2010 that shows
how City resources will be organized to:
* grow our assessment base,
* attract businesses that offer living wage jobs, and
* ensure we continue to deliver the services that are expected of us in a sustainable manner.
The initial focus will be on the lower City in areas like the waterfront, downtown, business parks and neighbourhoods that are experiencing very serious challenges and require the co-ordinated efforts of Public Works, Planning and Economic Development, Public Health, Community Services and Finance and Corporate Services. Our goal is to ensure a noticeable improvement is made in these areas by 2015 when the proposed LRT and the recently announced Pan Am games infrastructure are a reality.
6. If you were to take one big risk - a risk that would be assured to have a positive outcome, what risk would that be and what outcome would you be seeking?
The City’s vision is as follows: To be the best place in Canada to raise a child, promote innovation, engage citizens, and provide diverse economic opportunities. All aspects of this vision are important and inextricably linked. That being said a truly innovative culture would be for me the key that unlocks our ability to achieve the other three goals. Innovation is risk and risk sometimes means failure and failure for some cannot be tolerated. I don’t subscribe to this thinking because risk adversity promotes stagnation.
We know citizens are demanding a new relationship with government which will have to embrace innovation and change. Maybe one of the best examples of this is the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan where for approximately twenty years citizens and government have been at the table as partners tackling what some might have thought impossible. This “no blame” approach to solving problems has produced results that haven’t been replicated in many other sites across the great lakes.
7. What has been the biggest issue that staff have presented you with and how it is being addressed?
The Abdul Kahn controversy is by far one of the biggest issues I faced last year and one that is being reviewed by our City Solicitor in direct contact with council and by various external agencies. Our relationship with Council and the citizens we serve has to be grounded in trust and for that reason the allegations are being taken very seriously. Little more can be said until the review is complete.
8. What is the most useful piece of advice you have received since being in your present role, and how did you employ it?
Understanding at times this can be the loneliest position in the civil service and don’t hesitate to reach out to your peers in other municipalities that may have faced the same situation.
I belong to an association of City Managers and CAO’s that meet quarterly to discuss issues. It’s just nice to know our problems are neither unique or without solutions. In the end I’m here to help the Mayor and Council to address our challenges and support a work force that deserves respect for the many things it does right.
9. You have been recognized by your stickhandling of controversial issues surrounding the construction of the Red Hill Valley Parkway. How does the stickhandling of current issues fair in comparison?
The scale and diversity of issues are significantly larger but my approach is same. Take time to understand the issue, find feasible solutions, have a deadline, and work with decision-makers throughout.
10. What does success look like for Hamilton, 5 years from now?
I usually think in terms of 3 to 5 year increments but in this case I’ll stretch your question to 6 years because it works with the Pan Am deadline.
When I think of 2015 I think of some obvious successes. The Pan Am Games was a huge boost for our community – this will not only lead to much needed sporting infrastructure but, I think if we leverage this opportunity correctly we will be able to rebuild parts of this community that require investment. I would like to see and it is already underway, a fabulous waterfront with trails and shops and other commercial and residential opportunities. We will see a downtown with new destinations that celebrate our many cultures; we will have a built up McMaster Innovation District and we will see new employment opportunities in our employment lands. I know Hamilton will have improved transit services much sooner then 2015 – all day GO Transit will be huge advantage for this community and hopefully soon we will hear about LRT.
I was really happy to see the Raise the Hammer article, Cross Boarder Twin Cities (www.raisethehammer.org/index.asp?id=972) a few month ago as it highlighted many of Hamilton’s assets; we need more champions and outlets like this one and others to continue to promote Hamilton.
Thanks Chris for your contribution to The Hamiltonian and for your leadership in the city.