OUTGOING mayor Despi O’Connor’s decision to accept the top job at virtually her first Mornington Peninsula Shire Council meeting came down to wanting to be a role model to those she was teaching, and had taught, as a primary school teacher.
“My plan was to continue working and adjust my life to fit in the extra commitment,” she said at last week’s handover of the top job to another first-timer, Cr Anthony Marsh.
“I was already used to volunteering 20 hours a week in my community, give or take, on top of full time work. I always managed to make it work and I was prepared to be flexible.”
She said it took a “encouraging words from those around me” before she agreed to run for the position. “I was initially reluctant, because I was new to council. I didn’t know what was expected so I was going to [have to] learn fast.
“As a woman, like many others, I doubted my abilities and didn’t truly acknowledge the skills I would bring.
“We now have a council that for the first time has more women councillors than men.
“We are striving to be progressive, kind, and inclusive with new ways of seeing and doing.
“I have seen terrific examples of where this council has been empathetic, caring and collaborative, values I believe are important. This role [mayor] is focused on listening to the voices in our community – especially those not often heard.”
Cr O’Connor was “particularly proud of” the citizens panel which had led to creation of a community vision to guide the future direction of the peninsula and tackling climate change.
She said the climate emergency plan, adopted in August last year, “sets the tone for our entire organisation and community to drive climate action, and provides a 10-year roadmap to guide [us] towards zero emissions by 2040”.
Cr O’Connor cited the bulk buy program helping households access solar power and energy efficient appliances, and the shire’s achievement of carbon neutrality after “five years of continuous activity, such as installing solar panels and improving the energy efficiency of our buildings”.
Other achievements she is proud of include the creation of 22 hectares of bio links and planting nearly 17,000 trees and shrubs; the $100,000 community climate action grant program; food waste collection service; schools environmental education program; launch of the community energy program; and the campaign to block AGL’s gas import jetty and pipeline at Crib Point.
Cr O’Connor cited the council’s role in securing $27 million in grants for infrastructure – up from $9 million the year before – for new and improved infrastructure including the $50 million Yawa Aquatic Centre, Hastings Senior Learning Hub and Mornington Community House.
“I’m amazed at all we have achieved this year, despite the challenges of COVID,” she said.
“For months shire staff were at the frontline alongside volunteers to ensure those in need received essential food and care items, such as meals on wheels, during the first wave of the pandemic.
“Ensuring we continued helping our three community support centres, through partnerships with Oz Harvest and Second Bite, was important to me and was reflected in this year’s budget.
“The $10 million package of COVID supports … in this year’s budget shows our commitment to our community’s recovery.”
Cr O’Connor was one of 15 mayors appointed to the Local Government Mayoral Advisory Panel to help inform the councillor code of conduct and how it can improve governance across all councils in Victoria.
She said “strengthening our relationship with traditional custodians” was a top priority as mayor. She is delighted to have adopted the Willum Warrain master plan and “deepen our engagement with the Bunurong Land Council”.
“My strong desire for the remainder of my [council] term … is for our First Nations people to be able to see themselves in this space and also for them to be acknowledged broadly as the traditional custodians of these lands and waters,” she said.
“This means greater awareness and celebration of the peninsula’s Aboriginal culture and heritage, with traditional place names and stories given the recognition they deserve.”
Describing her term as a “huge year” Cr O’Connor said it included “moments of joy and hardship, uphill and down, trips and spills, high fives and triumphs. Hurdles you think you will never get over and successes like you never knew”.
“I am in the finish chute now [and] I have to tell you the last 200 metres of any marathon seems like a ridiculously long way,” she said. “As I reach the finish line, I can reflect and feel proud of all I have done for my community.”