Meet the Mayor – Adelaide Hills’ Jan-Claire Wisdom

Dr Jan-Claire Wisdom was born in Northern Europe and educated in Britain, where she lived until emigrating to Australia in 1991.

She has a background in tertiary education and military service, and was first elected to the Adelaide Hills Council in 2010, becoming mayor in 2018.

The council is home to 40,000 people in communities spread across an area of nearly 800 square kilometres to Adelaide’s east.

Q: What does your typical mayoral working day look like?

There is no typical day for me which is part of the fascination of the role.

Aside from my role as Mayor of the Adelaide Hills Council I am also a director on the LGA of South Australia Board, the Southern and Hills Local Government Association, the Greater Adelaide Region of Councils, and until recently on the State Libraries Board.

My only other occupation now is as an adjunct Research Fellow in the Business School of a local university.

Generally, I reserve Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for office-based work and local meetings. Thursday and Friday are for other Board and MP meetings, and weekends can include hosting or attending community events.

Q: What is the best aspect of your job?

Variety, strategic thinking, and community engagement.

I also like having a diverse team – I am always fascinated by the different perspectives people bring to the decision-making process.

Q: What is the worst aspect of your job?

To be honest I can’t think of a “worst” aspect, but the most frustrating aspect is the State Government’s attitude to local government.

Cost shifting, not matching federal funding opportunities, and the hypocrisy of making accountability demands of LG that are not reflected in state government.

Q: What is the most rewarding project you have worked on during your time in local government?

The Cudlee Creek Bushfire because I learnt so much and got so very close to the community and our council staff.

It was also the one community issue that I had dreaded for years, both as a resident and as an elected member.

So facing it head-on just a year after becoming Mayor was very instructive and reinforced my resilience. I’d spent 10 years in the army reserves and that mindset experience was both instinctive and helpful.

Our communities were magnificent in the way they supported one another and it was an honour to be able to help them.

Q: Your council is among the many that bore the brunt of the Black Summer bushfires. What are the lessons, looking ahead, for disaster preparedness and mitigation at the local level?

We [AHC] spent 2019 building an emergency management team with supporting protocols and systems. It is a decentralised rather than a dedicated permanent team, and forms when certain triggers occur.

The Cudlee Creek Fire was its first major challenge and it operated really well in conjunction with the local CFS, the LGASA’s own Functional Support Group and neighbouring councils.

We are sharing this experience with other councils around the State and I would encourage all councils to put a priority on being prepared to function in an emergency.

Another important preparation is developing community capacity to operate independently in an emergency when main roads and utility services are cut off.

We call this our Community Ready program and it is in its early stages. In the short term, it means ongoing community education but in the longer term it needs to be absorbed into planning. For example, so that sport and community facilities are built with the maximum flexibility in the design to be multi-purpose.

Another critical area that needs private, federal and state investment is the improved performance, capacity and operational resilience of digital and other telecommunications.

Q: The coronavirus pandemic has created serious financial headaches for councils. What can be done longer-term to ensure local government funding is adequate to provide the services residents, businesses and communities expect.

Unlike many other councils AHC gets 80 percent of its income from residential rates and has less Covid impact from loss of fee and service income or business rates. This means our Long Term Financial Plan must be sustainable.

The biggest threat to this is state-proposed rates capping. It has proven not to work elsewhere and can result in huge long-term infrastructure investment and maintenance backlogs.

 (I do wonder how much this contributed to the bushfire recovery outcomes in the Eastern States where capping has been in place for a long time.)

It is essential that local democracy prevails and that communities can have a say in what they want and how much they are prepared to pay for it.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you have received regarding local community service as an elected official?

I can’t isolate a particular piece of advice. I attended a Governor’s Leadership Foundation course a few years ago and the personal skills and exposure to other people’s perspectives has been invaluable.

Operating on the ground at the local level can mean getting weighed down by detail and the noise of squeaky wheels rising to a crescendo. When this happens, I ask myself: “Is the sky going to fall in?” and I try to refocus by reminding myself to “chase the dream and not the competition”.

Q: If someone standing for council were to ask you for advice, how would you respond?

I am a believer in active participation and developing councillors as community leaders. This means having a platform to indicate where your interests and values lie so residents can identify with you.

I don’t believe councillors are simply a mouthpiece for a particular community – they have to have something to offer in themselves.

Councillors need to listen to ratepayers and be prepared to remain calm and respectful under stress. They need to enjoy connecting and learning from others, to ask questions, weigh the evidence and make decisions in the best interest of the community.

My personal style is to lead by consensus not compromise or coercion. Candidates need to be prepared to develop a high-level of self-awareness and put in a lot of time to reading and thinking.

Essentially what you get out of being a councillor depends on what you are prepared to put in. You will need courage, compassion, good communication and a healthy dose of humility.

Q: What is your favourite place, and why?

What a lovely question! I’m an immigrant from the northern hemisphere and very much appreciate my adopted home here in the Adelaide Hills. Home for me is on top of a north-facing ridge where I can see down and across a valley of majestic gums and stringy-barks.

Although just 20 minutes from Adelaide’s CBD, wild kangaroos live just 50m away, and the garden is never empty of koalas and parrots. We live among vineyards with the beach also just 30 minutes away.

I have another favourite council landscape which is a country road that winds through a steep gorge from the city through Kenton Valley to a town called Lobethal – the centre of the recent bushfires.

The sheer beauty of this landscape takes the traveller across the spectrum of the Adelaide Hills landscape – deep gorges, steep climbs, winding roads, spectacular views, rolling hills, vineyards, orchards, and little townships from Mt Lofty to Mt Torrens.

This is evidence of the continuing agrarian landscape that as a council we are working to get listed as World Heritage.

Q: How would you reflect on the difference that you’ve made in your community and local government in general?

Have I made a difference? That’s really for others to judge at the ballot box.

I have a progressive rather than conservative mindset and I believe that I have helped direct the council in that direction. I see opportunities everywhere!

My “platform” when I joined the AHC 10 years ago was to raise the profile of arts and culture and I have done this and shown it to be an essential part of community capacity-building and wellbeing.

I also campaigned on advocating for bushfire mitigation, the critical importance of conservation of our unique biodiverse environment, and for council to play a greater part in the local economy and tourism. I believe I have been faithful to those commitments. The ballot box will tell!