Toronto’s new city manager is taking an personal approach to the job

Toronto’s new city manager is taking an personal approach to the job

Very early in his speech to the Insitute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto on Thursday, new Toronto city manager Chris Murray showed the audience a photo of his parents. He talked about his 95-year-old father’s parsimony and his 97-year-old-mother’s pride. Next he put up a photo of his two children, 20-year-old Hannah and 18-year-old Ben, and talked about the prospects they and their university classmates face.

It was a more personal approach to the occasion than most in attendance may have expected, different from the way Murray’s predecessors in the job have tackled the same event. The annual IMFG speech has become, over the past seven years, a bit of a Wonkapalooza — when the kind of academics, planners and hands-on activists who pore over the appendices of city budgets turn up to hear directly from Toronto’s chief bureaucrat. Under Joe Pennachetti and Peter Wallace, the last two city managers, it became known as an occasion filled with charts and graphs depicting the city’s financial situation, accompanied by straight talk about the need for politicians to start finding ways to pay for the things they want.

Wallace, in particular, became famous for his iceberg graph depicting the city’s unfunded needs. Murray promised no icebergs off the top. “Global warming has taken care of that,” he said, “so get in your sailboat if you’re ready.”

This particular speech served not just its usual state-of-the-city function, but also as an introduction for most of us to Murrary, who was hired earlier this year in the midst of the election campaign. He appears to bring a folksier, more humorous and personal style to the job. With a hint of an east-coast accent, he reminded me a bit in his demeanour of Fred Thompson’s old district attorney character on Law & Order — homespun storytelling and self-assured, quick humour that take the edge off some of the tougher love he needs to offer.

He certainly wasn’t shy. In discussing long-term planning, he brought up some images of the Gardiner Expressway. While emphasizing he didn’t want to revive the issue, he did point out that this road represents just 1.3 per cent of the city’s “lane kilometres,” while absorbing 53 per cent of our state-of-good-repair budget.

But the personal touch wasn’t just his style, it also got to one of his core messages about how he sees his job. The city’s government has to effectively serve people, he said. Beginning with the little things, the bread and butter: “Make sure the lawns are cut, the garbage is picked up, the roads are fixed — all the basics, day after day. Because these elected officials, no one is coming to them and saying, ‘My God, you gotta get on with that intergenerational equity.’ That’s not happening. That’s not what they’re saying. What they’re saying to them is ‘Where the heck is my garbage collector?’ If our organization can’t do that incredibly well, I don’t get to have the fun that I really love, which is working with them to change the direction of our city.”

This focus, he went on to say, needs to remain on celebrating results for citizens, rather than plans. He spoke of trying to explain to a homeless person your great housing plan is, when what that person is asking for immediately is a blanket. And he talked about trying to emulate, in helping the citizenry access their government, the user experience of smartphones and tablets, in as much as those devices don’t require instruction manuals, nor detailed understanding of what’s going on “under the glass” — you just turn them on and they work.

“Someone who’s struggling in poverty, you say to them, ‘You need to go across town tomorrow at 11 and attend this clinic to get this assistance’ — I don’t think we understand what is going on in their bandwidth. The things we take for granted, they struggle with. The cost of that ticket across the city sometimes, for some people, is the decision to eat two or three meals that day. And that’s just a fact. I really wonder if we fully understand what they face and how best to assist with their day to day. Not just from a morality standpoint, but even from a hard-line cost-benefit approach.”

This led into his other key message — tied into his multi-generational theme — related to thinking about things from a longer view, especially when it comes to managing expenses. “Pay me now or pay me later,” he said as a bit of a mantra, a reference to a 1972 Fram commercial about how spending $4 on an oil filter when you get the oil changed would prevent spending $200 on a bearing replacement later. Murray, who ran Hamilton’s social housing department before becoming manager of that city, related the virtue of the “pay me now” approach not just to obvious economic decisions, but to programs needed in neighbourhoods to serve seniors, youth and others. Investing in outcomes that head off those people’s problems, he said, headed off much bigger costs in dealing with the persistent symptoms of those problems later.

“That was a little different than the sessions we’ve had in the past,” IMFG director Enid Slack said when the presentation was done. It was — an interesting introduction to the approach of a new head of Toronto’s civil service. It will be fascinating to see how, working with the mayor and the new council, he gets the chance to apply that approach.

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Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire

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