PORTLAND – Ten years after he took the job on an interim basis, Joe Gray is stepping down as city manager.

Gray, 66, said he and his wife, Marie, agreed during their 40th anniversary trip to Greece two months ago that his retirement was looming. Beyond that, the timing of his decision was unclear.

He decided to act this week because his family is in town for the holidays and it has been 10 years since he became interim manager, after the unexpected death of his predecessor, Robert Ganley, on Dec. 23, 2000.

“You need a time when the light bulb goes off and you realize it’s time to move on,” Gray said Tuesday at a news conference that packed City Hall’s ceremonial State of Maine Room. He plans to leave the job in February.

Gray was thrust into the position of running Maine’s largest city under trying circumstances, after Ganley’s death from a heart attack. But he had decades of experience, having arrived in Portland in 1969 as an urban planner under the federal Model Cities program.

He said he expected to move to a larger city after a few years. But for him, his wife and their son, “Portland would become our bright lights.”

Gray became the director for Portland’s Model Cities program, deputy director of the Portland Renewal Authority and then director of Planning and Urban Development, before Ganley’s death put him in the top executive position.

City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who was mayor when Gray became interim manager, said the city began a national search for a new manager, but Gray was always front and center.

“It didn’t take long to realize he would be a good pick,” she said, and Gray was named city manager in May 2001.

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said Gray has been a solid leader, through the growth of the early 2000s and during the recent recession, when the city cut its staff and struggled to maintain services without significantly raising taxes.

“As we have weathered this storm, it has been a comfort to have Joe at the helm,” Mavodones said.

“He’s been a master of the budget in these very difficult times,” he said, while striking the right balance between leadership and deference to the City Council in its role of setting policy.

Gray said many of his top achievements as manager were projects that began under his direction in the Planning Department. He noted the Shoreway Access Plan, which grew into a network of more than 50 miles of trails throughout the city.

He is also proud of his role in overseeing the process to develop the Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal and a deep-water berth for larger ships. He also pointed to the expansion of the Portland International Jetport, development of a downtown arts district and preservation of the city’s neighborhoods.

One of his biggest disappointments, he said, was the stalled transformation of the eastern end of the waterfront, where upscale redevelopment projects have been delayed or derailed by the financial crisis and recession.

He said he won’t miss the responsibility for determining when Portland bans on-street parking — a decision that’s open to criticism when a snowstorm fizzles or proves worse than forecast.

Gray said his decision to retire was not prompted by a charter change approved by voters last month to create a position for a full-time, popularly elected mayor who will serve a four-year term. Currently, the council selects one of its own members to be mayor — a part-time, mostly ceremonial position that usually lasts only a year.

Gray said he didn’t want to announce his retirement in the middle of the first mayoral campaign next year.

He plans to work until Feb. 11 — 2/11/2011.

“I expect to buy some lottery tickets with those numbers,” he joked.

Mavodones said that in a few days he expects to lay out a plan for selecting an interim manager, and then the process for choosing a permanent replacement, possibly by next summer.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]