Sunday, January 31, 2010

10 Tough Questions with City Manager, Chris Murray

I contacted Chris some time ago about being a guest on 10 Tough Questions. His answer?- "Cal, I'd do it in a heartbeat". Well, we didn't get around to it right away. Chris, understandibly has been busy and it has taken him some time to reply to the questions. I only mention this because some of the questions may appear a little "stale" and they might have had more profound value at the time I asked them. But Chris's answers are "straight up", and, based on that, the questions and answers still present as very interesting.

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.


  1. With Mr. Murray noting that the bulk of our city costs are on the shoulders of residential tax payers rather than commerce and industry, perhaps he might like to comment on what happened with the Red Hill Valley expressway which was proposed and approved as the principal means of attracting new non-residential tax revenue. Is it just possible that we spend over 300 million dollars to create that tax base and that it is not working?

  2. Michelle HruschkaJanuary 31, 2010

    In my own personal view, the words from Mr Abdul Khan, and how he was treated, by you, speaks volumes to me.

    I am not impressed.

  3. Anonymous, the Red Hill Valley expressway with some help from Mother Nature created a whole bunch of jobs last July. We must be patient when we rip apart an entire ecosystem that we allow time for things to settle back down; She is a powerful change agent and hasty upstream development will only make her mangier.

    One hundred and fifty six million dollars were precipitated upon Hamilton last summer. Mother nature stepped in to provide for us when she tip-toed through the fourth, while our leadership and our industries hung us out to dry during their bailout season. What did we get from them? The tax back on up to $10,000 and a reparation permit fee waiver if our home was in an especially muddy neighborhood or maybe our deductible was with compassion, recovered. Big whoop-dee-doo-doo!

    I'll tell you what is really slowing down our economic engine right now Mr. Murray and Mr. Dobbie if you're still lurking around; The answer is slow to no pay, the money isn't flowing! There are a whole bunch of people out here with their hands tied-up waiting to get paid from Lou, who's waiting to get paid from Terry, who's waiting to get paid from Jim, who's waiting for God knows WHO else.

    They're Waiting!

    The longer we wait, the more precious time slips under our bridge and opportunity downstream with IT, floating alongside the drift woodshedded banks.

    C'mon all you Respectable Lords and Ladies that God knows who
    Pay up your bills that we've handed to you
    We all want to build yeah we've bailed out our nests
    Although we've not much left here save our bills and bare breasts
    Hen pecked and pretty much plucked

    Thanks for sharing Chris and Good Luck.

  4. Finally, someone at city hall has confirmed we are the highest taxed municipality in Ontario, but offers nothing to remedy the problem, like cutting costs and right-sizing the 9,000 staff to lower this cities usurious property taxes.

    As to all the investigations going on respecting Mr. Kahn's allegations, I submit they will never be made public due to embarrasement.

    City hall is all talk, no action.

    It's time to clean house at the ballot box and elect people who will put the taxpayers first, instead of cow-towing to staff's fear mongering about cuts to lower property taxes.

  5. Tom RobertsonFebruary 01, 2010

    Mr. Murray sounds more like a politician than the manager of a large business. Who pays the dues for the membership to the city managers club and the costs of the 4 yearly trips for meetings, Mr. Murray or the taxpayer?

    Mark when you hear that the lawsuits against Mr. Khan have been withdrawn or settled with a non disclosure clause you will know the cover up is in place

  6. I hear you there Tom, the cone of silence will end the matter, the public will never learn the truth, that's sad.

    It's an election year, is anyone really surprised, investigations at city hall only seems to last as long as the headlines, then poof, under the carpet it goes?

    Endless discussions, round tables and all forms of debate have done nothing to address the root cause of the plight of Hamilton.

    No net new jobs or the prospect of creating any in the future, truth be told.

  7. Cal- dont forget your going to do a follow up on the Abdul Khan thing

    Elvis P.

  8. News travels fast in a strong current, great CATCH Don!

  9. Chris Murray’s citing yet again of Hamilton’s nonsensical vision statement demands a re-write. Based on performance to date, here is one suggestion.

    “To be the best place in Canada to raise taxes, promote incompetence, engage consultants, and provide diverse economic opportunities to politicians, pimps, pan handlers, and payday loan sharks”

  10. Tom RobertsonFebruary 03, 2010

    How did an entry level planner get to be the city's top bureaucrat in 15 years

  11. Tom RobertsonFebruary 03, 2010

    Here we go again. The Muslim Faith say they want to spend millions downtown expanding their mosque with what I'm sure will be a beautiful building and the city says no sorry we want the land to accommodate a new Police building. The city should lead by example and restore one of the abandoned eyesores downtown to look after the needs of the Police Department. They could at least build on the vacant lot created by the collapse of the Century Theatre. Now we will have only one development downtown instead of two. The sad sacks on council and staff all need to go.

  12. Tom bud. Her's what the man said "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). "

    and your wondering how he got up the chain? We aint talking a shining city here

    Elvis P

  13. Tom, do we know that any lawsuits have been filed against Mr Kahn? He was threatened but I have not heard of any being initiated. If anyone has any information, please let know. In my option, the folks has been boasting and threatening of law suits and 40 pages response but its been almost two months - but where is all that.

    I have faith that Mr Kahn will not be bought out.

    Cal: please get hold of Mr Khan and get us an update.

  14. Tom RobertsonFebruary 04, 2010


    Anonymous...2 articles regarding legal action against Mr. Khan. Note the threat in the second article regarding building up legal costs in order to intimidate Khan. Do we want a city staff that operates through bullying and intimidation. These legal manuvers where initiated before any review of the issue was done and can only be seen as an attempt to stifle Mr. Khan. Maybe Mr. Harnum can update us on the status of these lawsuits.


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