Di Ianni: I thought 'This is a talented young man'
December 20, 2008
The Hamilton Spectator
Former mayor Larry Di Ianni can't recall the date of the meeting at which he first recognized Murray's potential, but he can describe the moment.
An opponent to the expressway had the floor. His plea had reached the point of wailing and, even in a debate known for high emotions, it was a new peak.
Di Ianni, then a councillor, remembers looking over at Murray, pitying him as the unlucky bureaucrat who would have to respond. He watched as Murray took a deep breath and then began to calmly outline the city's position.
Not once did his voice crack with emotion or frustration.
"I thought 'My God, this is a talented young man.' "
Murray's controlled demeanour became the norm during the contentious process. He credits his training in conflict resolution. The key, says Murray, is to not make it personal and listen to what is at the core of an argument.
"He's unflappable," says former regional chair Terry Cooke, who cautions people not to misconstrue Murray's approach as soft.
"His composure and patience is a means to an end."
Even from the other side, expressway opponent Burke Austin grew to respect Murray, even if she couldn't support his agenda.
"I never met a bureaucrat that could face so much public opposition and remain totally calm and collected while staying his course and proceeding with his job."
When an aboriginal claim threatened to derail the project just as the construction crews were moving in, the city sent Murray and another staffer into negotiations with the Haudenosaunee.
Both sides knew the agreement was critical and Murray sought common ground. Rather than filling pages with legal jargon, he recalls they agreed to "do something that our mothers are proud of."
Haudenosaunee lawyer Paul Williams remembers a private moment that helped set the tone.
He told Murray he never wanted it to look like the natives had compromised their integrity by being bought out.
That was good because the city didn't want to look like it was buying anyone off, Murray replied.
The talks landed the first agreement of its kind between Six Nations and a municipality.
Murray says simply: "Our moms would be proud."
* * *
When the Red Hill project was in its final days, Murray took a new assignment as head of the city's housing division.
"I took it because I knew absolutely nothing about it," he says.
"My thinking was 'Was Red Hill a fluke? Maybe I'm not that good.' "
Again seeking common ground, Murray started the job by asking his staff: Where have we been, where are we and where are we going? Then he asked them to dream. Imagine, he said, that we're at lunch in three years, what would make you most proud?
With their responses in front of him, Murray set about creating a plan, including revamping the shelter system and reviewing the division's $700 million in assets.
Then, a city tragedy took precedence. In the summer of 2007, a 16-year-old girl was stabbed to death at the city's housing complex on Oriole Crescent.
As residents publicized their fears, Murray arranged a meeting to ask the community what they needed to feel safer.
They asked first for a sign. "A sign. Can you believe that?" says Murray, humbled by the request.
He ordered one to be in place within 90 days to show residents his commitment to change.
When he drove by later to discover crescent had been misspelled, Murray had the sign replaced immediately.
After years in construction, he admits he was overwhelmed by the personal interaction he discovered in his new role.
"You can only get so emotional about asphalt," he says.
Just as Murray was settling into the job, a new opportunity emerged on the horizon.
City manager Glen Peace announced he was leaving in March, surprising council and starting speculation about his successor.
Several general managers declared they were in the race. An observer pegged Murray as a dark horse, a nickname quickly adopted by his co-workers.
Though flattered, Murray wasn't sure he wanted to apply. He reviewed the job posting and one line stood out: Hamilton wanted a generalist.
"That's me," he thought.
His wife, now a family studies teacher at Westdale, backed his decision, knowing what it would mean for her and their two young children, Hannah and Ben. She'd already spent years with an expressway running through her household.
"You never park Red Hill when you're working on it. You're mowing the lawn, you're thinking about Red Hill. Doing the dishes, making the kids' lunches, you're thinking about Red Hill. It is in your head all the time and you can't turn it off," says Murray. "She knew this would be the same."
But Murray's chances of landing the job were slim. He was a mid-level manager competing against his bosses, people with more experience and longer resumes.
Scott Stewart, head of public works and Murray's former boss, was widely seen as the favourite.
More than 70 applications and six months of elimination later, Murray and Stewart were the only candidates left standing. On decision day, the majority of votes lined up behind Murray.
In public, council was unanimous, offering a standing ovation.
But staff remained seated. Murray knows some of the managers are miffed. Though he plans to have private chats, he admits he's not sure what words he can offer to make the situation better.
Stewart is already leaving. Within a week of council's decision, he tendered his resignation to accept a senior job in Burlington. Still, he believes Murray will win the support of his colleagues when he takes over in January.
"I've got a lot of admiration for Chris. I think he's a great community leader."
Once Murray has mended his team, he plans to focus on the relationship with council. It will be the task that makes or breaks him.
Other managers, who also arrived with high expectations and grand plans, know this too well.
Doug Lychak, seen as too strong, was forced to resign. His replacement, Bob Robertson, seen as too weak, was fired.
In both cases, their demise came when they lost the support of their political masters.
After all, the city manager is not the mayor. Murray is only a bureaucrat, tasked with running the organization and carrying out council's order. Though a symbiotic relationship, there's a definite hierarchy.
"I think you have to know who is in charge and that's council," says Peace, who left to pursue other opportunities and plans to look for work in the new year.
Looking forward, many want Murray's diplomacy to be the catalyst that changes Hamilton's notoriously dysfunctional city hall. There's hope he'll again find common ground, navigating the political circus and inevitable hurdles to deliver, just like he did in Red Hill.
But there are also skeptics.
Community activist Don McLean, who came to know Murray in his opposition to the expressway, fears Murray could become council's yes man.
"He was an implementer," says McLean, noting the mayor himself said he didn't want the new head to be a "change agent."
Still, others see Murray's selection as a sign of hope from a troubled council.
"This is an inspired choice," says Cooke. He adds: "It's also a calculated risk."
* * *
Murray's old office, the 23rd floor of the high-rise at Main and Hess, has a spectacular view of the city. The city's temporary home in a mall, the soon-to-be-renovated Lister Block, the fiery steel towers and the deep blue hue of Hamilton Harbour touching the Skyway are within sight.
When he looks out the window, he thinks of a heaven and hell analogy he once heard.
In both places, there is a big, long table piled high with the world's best food. The utensils, however, are almost a metre long.
In hell, everyone tries to feed themselves and the food flies everywhere. In heaven, people feed the person across the table and everyone is satisfied.
"I think it's kinda profound," says Murray. "Where is that thinking?"
* Tackle the budget
Murray takes over just as council is starting its annual budget deliberations. The tax increase is currently sitting at 6.1 per cent.
* Learn the ropes
Murray plans to "chart a course for learning" about the city and its administration.
* Meeting and greeting
Murray wants to sit down with the mayor and all 15 members of council to discuss their issues and hear their expectations of his role.
* Building the team
After jumping over senior managers for his job, Murray is looking to bring his team together. "I respect them. I want them to be successful."
* Steering the ship
The city has already set out its vision for the future with its strategic plan. Murray wants to do his part to help Hamilton achieve those goals.
"The community is watching and expecting great things from us."
* Creating a bond
Murray believes it's critical to earn the trust of the community and council. He notes it would be much more valuable for Hamilton to have business owners and residents -- instead of bureaucrats and politicians -- sing the city's praises.
* Grow the economy
Murray's worst fear is that Hamilton will become a bedroom community for all the other successful cities. He sees expanded GO Transit service as key to the city's future.