DESPI O’Connor will donate the $12,164 she was paid by Mornington Peninsula Shire while contesting last month’s federal election to community organisations.
O’Connor, one of 10 candidates for seat of Flinders won by Liberal Zoe McKenzie, was granted absence of leave from 15 December until after the 26 May election (“Former mayor makes a run for Flinders” The News 13/12/21).
Admitting to feeling “not comfortable” being paid her councillor’s allowance while on leave from council duties, O’Connor said the money would be used to combat homelessness and mental health on the peninsula.
O’Connor had also been on leave from her teaching job with the Department of Education to attend her duties as mayor (2020/21), a job held since 16 November by her Briars Ward colleague Anthony Marsh.
An independent candidate, O’Connor suspended her election campaign after being made aware she may be in breach of section 44(iv) of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, but was later advised that under the Local Government Act 2020, a councillor’s allowance was payable during a leave of absence.
“I assumed, as with my leave of absence from the Department of Education [during her time as mayor in 2020/21], I would be unpaid for that period. I immediately requested that the council stop all allowance payments while I was on leave of absence.”
However, councillors are entitled to their councillor allowance regardless of what the leave is for, and the money was paid.
Executive advisor to the shire’s CEO, Amanda Sapolu, said O’Connor did not claim any expenses during that time.
O’Connor said she was comfortable that the money could “make a real difference to local causes”.
“These are real issues facing our community and ones I campaigned on during the election and have worked to support as a local councillor,” she said.
“To help combat homelessness on the Mornington Peninsula, I am donating $9000 to the Southern Peninsula Community Support Service. Alongside the Mornington Community Support and Information Centre and the Westernport Community Support Centre, they ensure those who are experiencing disadvantage are connected with services and provided with food, clothing and housing.
“I am donating the remaining $3164 to Mental Health Safety Net. Their important work trains community members to recognise the signs of suicide risk and to connect the person with life-saving intervention resources and services. This donation will pay for more than 60 people to receive the SafeTALK training.
“These are both causes close to my heart.”
O’Connor said homelessness on the peninsula was an issue that “will not go away without major intervention”.
“In the meantime, struggling families need a roof over their heads and a meal in their bellies tonight,” she said.
“Having known local people – including children – who have tragically taken their own lives, I was motivated to take the SafeTALK training myself. It was an incredible experience and I learned so much about the subtle warning signs.