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Adrian Walker

The man with a plan for Harvard Street health center

Not long ago, Charles Murphy was a State House power broker heading the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

The taciturn former Marine betrayed little sentiment as he announced last year he was leaving after falling out of favor with House Speaker Bob DeLeo. “We’re all going to be ex-legislators someday,” he told his colleagues in his last floor speech. “I’m just going to be an ex-
legislator sooner than you.”

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With that, he headed for a management post at Arcadia Healthcare Solutions, a health care data management firm based in his hometown of Burlington.

Given that history, it was a bit jarring to visit Murphy Monday in his new office on Blue Hill Avenue, at the Harvard Street Community Health Center. Two weeks ago, Murphy took the helm of the often-troubled neighborhood organization.

“Arcadia Solutions was fine, but it didn’t get me out of bed in the morning,” he explained with his usual directness. “I started looking for a mission-driven organization to run.”

Murphy is plainly an unconventional choice for the job. He has never worked in a health center. He’s a stranger to the Harvard Street community. Ask him what he knows about the neighborhood, and he glances at Franklin Park Zoo across the street and talks about taking his kids there. Ask him who he knows in the community, and he reels off a list of politicians. Basically, he’s a tourist in his new neighborhood.

But here’s what a former Ways and Means chairman knows well: numbers. Murphy understands how to construct and manage a budget and keep track of spending and run an organization. Those may sound like basics, managerially speaking. But managing the basics has sometimes been a challenge at Harvard Street.

Just as few years ago, employee Nzeribe McKenzie was convicted of robbing the place of $750,000 between 2003 and 2008. He was writing checks to himself. McKenzie had champagne tastes. He spent the money he pilfered on an apartment overlooking the Charles River, Mercedes-Benzes (yes, plural), even a Lamborghini. His prison term is winding down, and his sentence includes a requirement of restitution, but people at Harvard Street aren’t necessarily holding their breath.

After that scandal, Dr. Chidi Achebe was brought in to fix the mess. He was eloquent about serving the community and brought a glittering resume to the post. Unfortunately, he reportedly did not bring a flair for communicating with a staff or dealing with a board of directors.

Achebe and the management took vows of silence when he left earlier this year. But it is no secret that the center’s board flipped out when he announced that he was taking over the essentially bankrupt Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center, an expansion Harvard Street could hardly have afforded. The proposed merger was scuttled in a matter of days. RoxComp closed soon thereafter, and Harvard Street would soon be looking for a new chief.

Murphy says Harvard Street’s finances are now stable — neither good, nor disastrous — and acknowledges that his first order of business is to raise more revenue. “It’s a mission, but it’s also a business,” Murphy said.

Bonnie Braithwaite, chairwoman of the center’s board, said Murphy was an instant front-runner, for reasons that had nothing to do with his State House experience. “He was the only one who came into his interview with a specific plan for how to improve our finances,” she said. “He was the only one who had done the research to figure out what we needed.”

She brushed aside criticism that he is an outsider. “I told Charlie, ‘I’m not looking at the color of your skin,’ ” she said. “We need the best, and we deserve the best. He’s a leader.”

Murphy said he doesn’t spend any time looking back on his days on Beacon Hill. “I had a good run, and I’m thrilled to move on to the next chapter,” he said. “I’m excited about this challenge.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.
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