Tuning up the DCC

Dunedin City Council chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose stands with her retro-styled 2009 Triumph...
Dunedin City Council chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose stands with her retro-styled 2009 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle after a high-octane first year in the job. She has had to juggle testing administrative challenges while trying to advance her agenda of...

Sue Bidrose is not what you might reasonably expect.

The Dunedin City Council's first female chief executive breezes into the room, grinning, joking, offering a coffee cup covered in all the symbols of the periodic table's elements.

Then she launches into a recital of every element represented on the cup, from memory, drawing on her background in biochemistry.

It's not the typical start to an interview with a council chief executive, but then Dr Bidrose is not your typical city bureaucrat.

What follows is an hour of undivided attention as Dr Bidrose (53) opens up about her life, her job and the sleepless nights that come with the city's biggest headaches.

Those headaches include the discovery of a major alleged fraud within the council and the headlines and resignations that followed.

But she also talks about her love of motorcycles, scuba diving and travel, the cancer scare that threatened to claim her life, and her civil union to her long-time partner, Lisa.

And as she talks, reclining in her chair and smiling, a blue folder sitting on the table offers the only clue to the pressures on Dr Bidrose's time.

It's a daily schedule that details exactly where she should be, and what she should be grappling with, at every hour of the day.

It's a schedule that's been bulging at the seams since Dr Bidrose won the council's top job in November last year.

Since then, the list of council headaches has grown from financial pressures to include Invermay, broken stadium budgets, a battle over State Highway 88 and waterfront hotel ructions - to name a few.

Then, in May, Dr Bidrose received the phone call every chief executive dreaded - a manager warning of irregularities, within Citifleet.

''Somebody rang me and said: `Hey listen, we think we might have an issue'.

''We really didn't know how it was going to unfold, and then of course it unfolded in a particularly tragic set of circumstances.''

Exactly what unfolded remains under wraps, along with copies of the Deloitte investigation and police probe which followed.

What is known is that Deloitte found evidence of a significant fraud, involving the sale of 152 council vehicles and the pocketing of $1.5 million in proceeds, stretching back more than a decade.

The shock waves began when the discovery of irregularities was followed by the sudden death of former Citifleet manager Brent Bachop on May 21.

Since then, as details of the alleged fraud have emerged, three of the council's senior managers have resigned and two more junior staff lost their jobs.

It all meant that Dr Bidrose found herself at the centre of a storm just six months into her new job - juggling media demands, staff emotions, and the need for a tight legal process while the investigation continued.

And all the while the Department of Internal Affairs - which had the power to wrest control of a troubled council's affairs - was watching.

Dr Bidrose said her own toughest moment came in September, when a Fairfax story ran under the headline: Dunedin council CEO won't resign.

''That was tough,'' Dr Bidrose said.

''I thought, you know, five months into the job I've uncovered a fraud that's been running for almost certainly more than 10 years. We have [found it] because we've fixed our processes.

''If you ask a chief executive to resign when that happens, it's not a great incentive to us to go off and do our jobs and try to make sure that these things can't happen, because then if you find it you're motivated like hell to cover it up.

''I don't believe covering things up in the end is ever a good idea. As tempting as it might feel in the short term, in the long term it's not how you build trust with your community.''

Whether her career was tarnished would depend on whether people associated her with the alleged fraud, or saw her as the boss who put a stop to it.

She hoped it was the latter, but, asked if mud would stick, replied candidly: ''Sure, probably - in some people's minds.

''That headline ... suggests that there was a complicity in me.''

But that didn't mean she wouldn't fight it.

''The fraud doesn't define us as an organisation, and I don't want it to be the thing that defines me as a chief executive.''

Instead, what defined her was an old-fashioned sense of public service ethics which was, she said, making a comeback.

Every dollar of ratepayers' money counted, and needed to be looked after, which was one of the reasons the alleged fraud was ''an appalling thing'', she said.

But if it was also a test of Dr Bidrose's resolve, it was something she didn't shy away from.

''I think this is exactly the kind of thing that CEOs have to deal with - that's your job; you know it comes with the territory.''

It was a comment that echoed Dr Bidrose's view when her appointment to the council's top job was unveiled on November 18 last year.

Fronting a media conference, she was asked if the challenges facing her - and the city - were a cause for concern.

''That's the best time to be a chief executive, I think. That's the time that really tests your mettle,'' she replied.

Her appointment was her second attempt to secure the top job in a city she had, in her own words, fallen in love with.

Dr Bidrose came to Dunedin in 1990, intending to visit a friend, and simply ''decided to stay''.

''I just thought Dunedin was the most extraordinary city.''

She grew up in Wainuiomata, in the Hutt Valley, in the 1960s, and her early career included part-time roles as a cleaner, pet shop worker and florist.

She worked as a junior laboratory technician from the age of 16, armed with a New Zealand science certificate in biochemistry, before shifting to the non-profit sector, beginning as a Youthline counsellor.

Eventually, the desire for a ''proper degree'' led her to study clinical psychology at Victoria University, followed by a period of travel and work in children's homes in London.

Her adventurous streak then saw her spend a year travelling alone around Africa, in 1990, before she returned to New Zealand and continued her studies in Dunedin.

In 1998, she accepted a job at the Social Policy Agency - later the Ministry of Social Development - in Wellington, and later moved to Work and Income NZ.

In 2005, she was invited to make another career jump - this time into the world of local government at Waitakere City Council.

That was definitely not part of the plan for Dr Bidrose, who admitted she ''didn't even know what councils did'' then.

The chance to work on ''innovative'' ways of developing the council's relationship with its community turned out to be ''a joy'', she said.

That was until 2010 and the rise of the Super City in Auckland.

Dr Bidrose said she had no desire to be part of the sizeable new organisation, fearing she would be more ''removed'' from the community.

Instead, after running into then-DCC chief executive Jim Harland, she was told of a vacant general manager's role at the council, and ''leapt at it like anything''.

She returned to Dunedin as the DCC's general manager of strategy and development in November 2010, arriving the day after Mr Harland announced his resignation.

That prompted Dr Bidrose to put her hand up to become Mr Harland's replacement.

In the end, she came second to a Welshman called Paul Orders - himself a first-time council chief executive.

Not that it bothered Dr Bidrose, who said working with Mr Orders was ''an utter joy''.

Mr Orders brought a resurgent sense of public service ethics with him to Dunedin, and spent hours mentoring Dr Bidrose by quizzing her on how she would handle situations, she said.

''It was a fantastic experience and I'm so much the better for having had that couple of years working for him,'' she said.

Eventually, after Mr Orders' departure, Dr Bidrose tried again for the top job and was successful.

''I've always said I just don't want to work for someone who's not as good as me.''

Her new role saw a never-ending stream of duties, co-ordinated by her long-serving personal assistant, Vivienne Harvey.

Dr Bidrose was ultimately responsible for about 40 council business units, and grappled with issues - big and small - unable to be resolved on the way up the council's management hierarchy.

That meant a file on Citifleet was just as likely to land on her desk as an angry ratepayer's complaint about library fees.

It also meant early starts, 12-hour days and an endless stream of work emails, phone calls and papers to read at night and on weekends.

''I really try quite hard not to work too much on the weekends - apart from reading and emails and things ... but, you know, you get a bit addicted to your telephone. That can cause a bit of friction at home.''

She had also had to get used to waking up at 3am, worrying about big issues, although ''I don't do it as much as I thought I would''.

''I know people are going to be negative and say negative things ... that stuff keeps me awake at night.''

Her downtime revolved around Lisa, her partner of 14 years, and their dogs, friends and a garden that demanded to be weeded.

It also revolved around Dr Bidrose's love of motorcycles, specifically her 2009 Triumph Bonneville, although riding had ''fallen by the wayside'' a bit in the past year.

She has ridden a motorcycle across northern India, and was considering a ride across Tunisia, although South Island roads beckoned first.

Those plans almost came to a screeching halt two years ago, when Dr Bidrose - then a DCC general manager - discovered a lump in her neck.

It was removed, initially diagnosed as a T-cell lymphoma, and a ''particularly unpleasant'' course of chemotherapy awaited.

Doctors then told her they could not be sure of the diagnosis, and that she would have to wait for another one to be sure.

With an uncertain prognosis, and fearing the worst, Dr Bidrose headed to San Francisco for a week of bucket-list activities.

She returned to a rosier picture, with no sign of a recurrence and doctors unsure whether they had misdiagnosed the lump or caught it at an early stage.

It was her second brush with cancer, but one that made her ''reprioritise all the things that matter'' - except working for the council.

She looked forward to work's challenges - helping the council run like a well-oiled machine, and helping its elected representatives to make good decisions.

That had required considerable ''modernisation'' of the council's processes and policies over the past year, which had helped the council turn the debt corner, among other highlights.

It had also prompted the stadium review, the discovery of the alleged Citifleet fraud, and the public hammering that came with both.

But the city, and its council, were heading in the right direction, she believed.

''Overwhelmingly, this is a council full of incredibly decent people who really like this city and want to make it a good place.''

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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