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On the day she was named as Dunedin City Council chief executive in December 2013, Sue Bidrose told the Otago Daily Times she had three principal aims for her tenure in the role.
She wanted, she said, to help make Dunedin a more attractive place to live for skilled and talented young people. She hoped she could play a role in fostering the city’s economic growth. And she planned to "continue the council’s more open, transparent relationship with its community".
There will be differing opinions on how successfully Dr Bidrose, who announced this week she is leaving the role to head up AgResearch, achieved that trio of aims. The burden any senior council figure must bear is that it is impossible to please everyone.
What is reasonably clear is that, broadly speaking, she has made an immense contribution to this city.
She led from the front, was clearly passionate about Dunedin and moving the city forward, and worked tirelessly to modernise her organisation, and she will leave with our respect and best wishes.
She broke through a major glass ceiling when she had her first day in the chair on her 52nd birthday, replacing Paul Orders and becoming the first female chief executive of the council, and — while there is not necessarily anything wrong with affirmative action to redress years of gender imbalance — she got the job on merit, because she was clearly up to the task of running an organisation responsible for billions of dollars of ratepayers’ assets and more than 1000 staff.
She faced immense challenges along the way, testing the thickness of her skin and the sharpness of her mind and the full range of her management competence.
The Citifleet scandal, in particular, happening as it did so soon into her tenure, must have placed an immense strain on her shoulders. Later, the South Dunedin flooding aftermath, issues around cycleways and city streets, various hotel and waterfront development issues, and the Covid-19 pandemic all tested her ability to keep the ship on course.
Dr Bidrose was forced to keep her hand on the tiller during a period of necessary council austerity that followed the massive investment in Forsyth Barr Stadium. Then, once the financial shackles were loosened, she oversaw a spell of relatively vigorous spending and investment to drive economic growth.
Through her time at the council, she always seemed accessible and approachable, at least in relative terms, and she got among, and was embraced by, the community. Her willingness to talk about her background — she was adopted as a baby, and caught up with long-lost family while chief executive — and her motorbike riding and her bid last year to turn down a market-driven pay rise helped humanise her.
This newspaper, in a feature a year on from her appointment, referred to Dr Bidrose as "not your typical city bureaucrat" yet someone who had an "old-fashioned sense of public service ethics".
It was that ethical core that drove her to focus heavily on necessary cultural change within the council, and it was interesting to note she referred to her role in creating a "really modern, best-practice, A-grade public sector organisation" in her farewell statement, and listed her proudest achievement as the DCC being recognised by the Office of the Auditor-general for being an "exemplar" in the field of public service.
There were times when you sensed Dr Bidrose had to bite her tongue while dealing with some of the city councillors, and in recent times — witness her comments about "online vitriol" — there has been a sense of frustration at what she saw as positive council steps being greeted with criticism.
If the simplest gauge of a council chief executive’s impact is whether they are leaving their city in a better state than when they started, the Bidrose era can be judged a success. Hers are big shoes to fill.