Waimakariri CEO retires today

Retirement ... Jim Palmer is looking forward to spending more time with his family. PHOTO: DAVID HILL


Jim Palmer never imagined he would stay in Waimakariri’s top job for 17 years.

The Waimakariri District Council chief executive retires today, Friday March 5, after two decades with the organisation.

The council he leaves behind is the envy of many, with excellent credit ratings thanks to prudent financial management.

Mr Palmer joined the council in September 2001 as chief finance officer, before being appointed chief executive in March 2004.

As one former mayor once wryly observed, Mr Palmer and his colleagues have endured practically every major disaster except for a plague of locusts.

“It’s been a privilege to lead the district through such a challenging time with growth and the 2010/11 series of earthquakes and the recovery since then. That was what made me stay longer.

“I had thought 10 years was the limit for a council chief executive, but I got committed to wanting to see our community and council recover.

“I’m proud of the way the community and the council have worked together and delivered some outstanding results,” he says.

The five-year period until 2015/16 was focused on recovery, and Mr Palmer says he is proud of the commitment of council staff through that period.

Overseas experience had shown that community organisations typically had a high turnover of leadership within three years after a major disaster because of the workload and stress. Waimakariri was an exception, with just three council managers out of 30 leaving between 2010 and 2015.

“I put that down to the commitment of our staff and wanting to be part of the recovery, and to make a difference.”

‘‘While it was an extremely challenging environment, it was for me, and probably for them, a career highlight; and we started on a philosophy started by (former mayor) Ron Keating of ‘build back better’.’’
Once the rebuild was completed, Mr Palmer saw a need to stay on to help rebuild the ouncil.

‘‘For the five years prior we were so focused on community recovery that we invested virtually nothing in ourselves.

‘‘Over the last two to three years we have been investing in our organisation’s people,
systems and processes so I now feel we are in a strong place to carry on and be successful.’’

Mr Palmer feels he is leaving a resilient organisation.

‘‘They say everybody has got at least one good disaster in them and as (former mayor)
David Ayers has said, we’ve had experience of every major natural disaster you
can think of apart from a plague of locusts.

‘‘So we have plenty of experience and we are often called on by other organisations to help, whether that’s the 2016 earthquake, the Port Hills fire, the mosque shootings, and other major events like floods.’’

In his time, Mr Palmer served under four mayors, including Jim Gerard, Mr Keating, Mr Ayers and Dan Gordon.

‘‘All through the earthquake recovery, David (Ayers) and I worked together extremely well to support our community.

‘‘Every mayor and every councillor is different, but what is absolutely the same is their commitment in wanting to do the very best for their community.

‘‘They bring different perspectives and approaches to their work, but I’ve never
met an elected member who didn’t want to do the very best for their community and I have high regard for people who put themselves forward for public office.’’

Mr Palmer’s career in the public sector extended to 37 years. He says the one constant has been change, and that looks set to continue.

When he first arrived, Waimakariri’s population was 36,000. Now it is nearly 65,000 and predicted to reach 100,000 over the next 30 years.

To support that growth, the council has made major investments in infrastructure, including the ocean outfall introduced under Mr Gerard, which has given the district
growth capacity through to 2070, Mr Palmer says.

The Palmer family lived in the Christchurch suburb of Shirley until their home was wrecked in the February 2011 earthquake. Within a week they bought a house in Rangiora and are now settled, with no plans to move.

In his retirement, Mr Palmer plans to spend time in the garden, making use of his
golf clubs, reading, exploring the district’s walking tracks, some travel, and ‘‘exploring
some new opportunities that I haven’t had time to do’’.

‘‘Throughout my career I’ve worked a minimum of 60 hours a week, so to get a little more balance back in my life, I’m certainly looking forward to it.’’

But he is not getting away that easily, as he has already been nominated to be the
Greater Christchurch Partnership’s independent chair, indicating he will continue to have an influence on the region’s development.

New chief executive Jim Harland will take up his new role at the end of this month.
Mr Palmer is sure there will be plenty of challenges for Mr Harland in the months and
years ahead, including the three waters reform and ongoing Covid-19 uncertainty.

‘‘There will always be change and that’s something that every organisation, whether a council or a business, has got to be consistently ready for.’’