Harris would be given, as the newspapers reported, a "free hand" to clean up a weary organization that seemed unable to deal with the city's rapid growth. There were chronic water shortages and infectious disease epidemics in the slums adjacent to City Hall. Torontonians had come to deeply resent the privately-owned streetcar monopoly, the Toronto Railway Company, which refused to meet demand for service as the city pressed north, west and east. Recognizing that he would need to clean house, Harris refused to formally accept the position until council repealed a by-law limiting the ability of its commissioners to fire employees (Weekly Star, June 8, 1912).
Newspaper reports at the time indicated that Harris had become a well-known figure in civic circles. The anonymous humour writers poked fun of his weight, and he appeared regularly in editorial cartoons as a rotund, bespectacled presence invariably battling some political enemy in his mission to modernize the city.
But Harris had a habit that distinguished him from more typical City Hall bureaucrats, one that marked him as a modern man. He was an avid photographer:
As the Star also noted on June 8, 1912, “Mr Harris’ habit of nearly always carrying a camera has been commented on, and, no doubt, many people have guessed that the Commissioner generally wears a tail coat for this very purpose. It might be supposed easy for him to tuck away a pretty big camera in its capacious folds. But the truth is Mr. Harris in his inveterate pursuit of photography has a fondness for a very small camera. For quite a long time, he has carried a tiny English vest pocket instrument, and he recently bought another, smaller if possible. And it is with these – the two smallest cameras manufactured – that he has most of his picture-making fun. They wouldn’t bulge the pocket of the thinnest man at the Hall.”