City council CEO Paddy Clifford reflects on leaving Palmerston North

Former Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford in The Square in 2009.
MURRAY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Former Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford in The Square in 2009.

Palmerston North's retiring city council chief executive Paddy Clifford nearly didn't make it to the city 10 years ago.

The former Hurunui District Council chief executive had several job options, and chose a different one, initially turning down the Palmerston North offer.

But former mayor Heather Tanguay was not prepared to take "no" for an answer.

Returning Palmerston North mayor Grant Smith, left, and Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford in 2016.
WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Returning Palmerston North mayor Grant Smith, left, and Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford in 2016.

Within an hour of hearing of his refusal, she was on the phone offering a weekend's hospitality so she could show Clifford and his wife Maureen what they would be missing.

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They accepted the invitation.

Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford at a council committee meeting in 2012.
WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford at a council committee meeting in 2012.

"She was really nice. She showed us around and made us welcome."

And she changed their minds. Clifford went back to the South Island and turned down the opposition job offer, and said "yes" to Palmerston North.

"And we're really pleased we did. The city has grown on us."

Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford with former mayor Jono Naylor, left, in 2010.
LEILANI HAYES/FAIRFAX NZ

Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford with former mayor Jono Naylor, left, in 2010.

But that feeling did not happen straight away.

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Within weeks of his arrival, mayor and hostess Tanguay was dumped by voters in the local government elections in favour of Jono Naylor.

Then Clifford took a look at the books and found they were in a horrible state.

Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford speaks at his final council meeting before retiring.
WIDHI RACHMANTO

Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford speaks at his final council meeting before retiring.

"I just could not get my arms around the finances."

The council had been spending beyond its means, merrily racking up debt to cover not just capital spending, but its operating losses as well.

The debt stood at $156 million, and nothing had been paid off the principal for 14 years.

Palmerston North City councillors stand in honour of retiring chief executive Paddy Clifford.
WIDHI RACHMANTO

Palmerston North City councillors stand in honour of retiring chief executive Paddy Clifford.

Within months, Clifford and Naylor had to face the public, confessing to a $6m overspend for the year, and seeking an 11 per cent rates rise at a time when inflation was around 3.2 per cent.

"I had never done anything like that. I was prepared to hang for it."

That was just the big picture.

Clifford could not get an understanding of what had gone wrong below the surface.

"The computer system did not work and the financial reports that came out of it were unreliable."  

It was a nightmare.

"I used to wake up at night in a cold sweat.

"For those first two years, I worked seven days a week.

"The ship was on a list and we had to get it back on an even keel."

Ten years on, Clifford was proud, but sharing the credit for a huge turnaround in financial management and performance.

"We have the power to take money away from people without their willingness and with that comes great responsibility," he told the Palmerston North Lunch Club.

Now routinely returning annual surpluses and with a debt-repayment plan that has brought the principal down to about $100m, the council holds an AA credit rating from Standard and Poor's.

You can't get better than that in local government.

While the dollars mattered, Clifford has been more than a numbers man.

An Irishman, Clifford grew up in a County Limerick police house until the family moved to London, where the children made the streets their playground.

He worked in local government, starting in Westminster, where he met his wife Maureen, and they had three sons.

Thirty years ago, the family made a break for New Zealand, first moving to Invercargill, and then to Hurunui in 1994.

His rich background in local government and a firm belief in the importance of local democracy stood him in good stead in Palmerston North, which appealed to him as a city.

He found it tolerant, multicultural and reminiscent of "home".

Speakers at his farewell told of his deep respect for people, and the way he led by example in dealing with staff, the mayor and councillors, other councils and the public.

Sometimes, to outsiders, it might have looked like relationships were awkward. Like, for example, when he made his stand against Horizons Regional Council's "sword of Damocles" hanging over the city council when it issued an abatement notice to stop polluting the Manawatu River.

"It was a difficult time. But I said to [Horizons chief executive] Michael McCartney that even though we had to take those different sides, we could talk in a civil way and with mutual respect."

Another potential friction was with Manawatu District Council.

But rather than embark on a controversial proposal for amalgamation, the two councils worked together, mutually promoting the boundary change that took effect in 2012.

Clifford said the city council's relationships with other councils throughout the region were now strong, something that did not happen in every region.

One of his first major projects in Palmerston North captured his values of people first, financial responsibility and patience.

That was the building of Hancock Community House in King St.

Clifford was offended by the "appalling conditions" workers in the voluntary sector were enduring.

He was not satisfied with the idea of housing "the strong social fabric" of the community in a do-up of an old building.

He also wanted to look after the ratepayers and believed they should not have to pay it all.

There were more organisations than just the NZ Transport Agency  that could be convinced to contribute to council projects.

The $2.2m building, complete with the courtyard garden he was keen to see as an integral part of the accommodation, was completed with just $850,000 coming from rates.

Attracting those grants took time.

Clifford has come to accept that forming partnerships, applying for outside funding and getting project planning right does take time.

In recent years the council has consistently failed to deliver on capital works programmes.

Spending under budget has created savings in interest costs, which have been invested in repaying debt.

But there has been a level of unease around the council table about charging people rates for work that does not get done.

For the coming year, the proposed budget has been given a thorough pruning, with management taking a more realistic view of what can actually be achieved.

"There is more involved at the front end than there used to be.

"There has been a realisation by us as a team that we maybe need to front-end a year for consents, lead-in and consultation."

After a decade of highlights, Clifford loves to talk about the way the Save the Turbos campaign galvanised a community in 2009, the extensions to Te Manawa, the new home for the New Zealand Rugby Museum, shifting the regional bus terminal to The Square and much more.

He is delighted the Wildbase Recovery centre at the Esplanade is under way, and consents are through for the He Ara Kotahi cycle and pedestrian bridge.

He leaves challenges for the future, not least, building the council's reputation as an employer able to compete in a world market for skilled staff, be they civil engineers or building inspectors.

"I feel this is the right time to leave.

"The council is in good order and the city is booming."

Clifford is not due for his SuperGold card yet, but this is a retirement and the end of his career.

His top priority now is family, and he and Maureen will be returning to Canterbury to see more of the offspring, and their offspring.

What others said:

Mayor Grant Smith:

"He was one of the first to put his hands up in the campaign to Save the Turbos. Has a real passion for Palmerston North."

Deputy mayor Tangi Utikere:

"Impressed by his ability to show compassion and empathy for staff or any member of the community."

Jim Jefferies:

"I think you brought community back into council, and not just in words."

Lorna Johnson:

"Appreciated your calm and dignified approach to your work, and a twinkle in your eye."

Rangitane rangatira Wiremu Te Awe Awe:

"You go beyond compassion. "

Iain Lees-Galloway:

"Your impact on the council as an institution and on the city has been profound."

 - Stuff

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