Dunedin’s mayoral city builder

When the late Dave Cull stood down after three terms as Dunedin’s mayor, the achievements he listed are not on the surface spectacular.

Rather, in an Otago Daily Times interview, he referenced the likes of council governance, a broad consensus around the council table and a more strategic approach to city issues.

The handyman who had studied politics at the University of Otago came to write books on icebergs, DIY projects, painting tips, kitchen essentials and Otago weather.

The local body politician who once hosted television lifestyle and home improvement shows came to focus on building the foundations and functions of the council and the city rather than on monuments or ceremony.

He was determined, council colleagues say, to build a team to work together, to provide interdependent strategies and to keep looking and moving forward.

It was not an easy time for Dunedin when he became mayor in 2010, and Mr Cull was one of the opponents of the controversial covered stadium.

Nevertheless, he supported it once there was no going back.

He was elected with the Greater Dunedin ticket, a group of capable councillors with general outlooks in common but also with differences. They did not caucus but were able to provide support for Mr Cull.

His early mayoral years were especially challenging as the council-owned companies were reviewed and revenue from them dried up. Austerity was required to prevent massive rate rises and ballooning debt.

Once the worst was over, he backed "investment" in the city’s future. He embraced the slogan of Dunedin as one of the "world’s great small cities" and, at the time, the ambitious target of 10,000 more people.

There was the Citifleet fraud scandal and the flooding failure of South Dunedin infrastructure as well as growing awareness of the threat of sea-level rise.

He sided with commuting cycleways rather than more parking for cars.

His supporters praised the way he was prepared to face up to issues and the way the strategic framework could be used to help hold management to account.

The appointment of Paul Orders and then Sue Bidrose as chief executives and his partnership with them and the executive and governance teams were central to acting on the problems the city faced.

By nature, while being determined, he liked to consult and gain consensus. Often, he would let other councillors speak first as he sought a way forward. He would also allow flexibility in meetings for the same reason.

Renowned, however, were his clashes with Cr Lee Vandervis.

He was hugely committed as mayor, then going on to apply lessons learned to his role as president of Local Government New Zealand. The relationship with the Government needed to be positive and new ways of funding found, he believed.

One former councillor has noted the vital worth of the sterling and ongoing support of his wife Joan Wilson.

It was no surprise to see Mr Cull almost at the top of the poll for the Southern District Health Board after his mayoral stint ended in 2019. It was also no surprise to see him appointed to chair the board.

Clearly, he had much more to give before pancreatic cancer forced him to stand down last year.

Although Mr Cull was born and brought up in Invercargill, he brought his abilities and his resolve to both help build Dunedin’s future and build a principal place in the city’s history.

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