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NEWS | Sunday, 10 February 2008

Auditor’s report slams MEPA’s former PRO

James Debono

In a report issued on January 9 MEPA auditor Joe Falzon slammed the authority’s former public relations officer Sylvana Debono for trying to divert attention from public criticism on MEPA’s disregard for heritage considerations by exposing two unrelated enforcement orders issued against a Green party spokesperson and a couple from Hamrun.
In his report, Joe Falzon, who was re-appointed as MEPA auditor by Minister George Pullicino only last year, described the PRO’s statement as a “gratuitous attempt at diverting the attentions of the public,” by publishing information which was “true and correct” but “incomplete” and “irrelevant” to the case.
Sylvana Debono who was recently appointed secretary to the MEPA Board contends that the Auditor was simply expressing a “gratuitous opinion” and that his investigation of her role as a PRO was as “inappropriate as asking the PRO to assess a set of plans, something which the PRO would decline on the grounds of lack of competence.”
In his report Falzon also reprimanded MEPA for “persecuting” a Hamrun couple who had earned the praise of the Superintendance for Cultural Heritage for highlighting the abuse taking place next to their home.
The auditor concluded that MEPA had ignored similar illegalities in the vicinity of the couple’s residence.
Writing to the Sunday Times in 2006 to counter criticism that MEPA had ignored heritage consideration when granting a permit for excavations works in Hamrun, Sylvana Debono revealed that an enforcement action had been issued against the Hamrun couple for changing a timber balcony with an aluminium one.
Debono also revealed that Mark Causon was served with an enforcement notice for illegal excavations in his private home sited in “an archeologically sensitive area.”
Causon contends that he had himself alerted the SCH after he accidentally discovered an old well.
The auditor concluded that MEPA had not acted in a professional manner when it publicised the alleged illegalities committed by Causon and the Hamrun couple when it answered their criticism in the press.
“MEPA should refrain from answering criticism in the press by trying to judge the motivations of its critics. It should limit itself to the facts stated and nothing else.”
Although a complainant “may appear hypocritical when they report illegalities of third parties but is willing to commit them himself, MEPA is not a judge of morals.”
More seriously, the auditor also lambastes MEPA for singling out the Hamrun couple, through an enforcement action when other people living in the vicinity committing the same irregularity were not.
“At best this can be viewed as inconsistent behaviour, at worst discrimination and persecution of private citizens,” Falzon said.
“Nearby residents who had done the same things are not in any way harrassed and allowed to enjoy the fruits of their illegal activity.”

Sylvana Debono’s reaction
But in her reply to the report Sylvana Debono insisted that her actions were guided by the principles of “accuracy, honesty and integrity” and that she was merely “serving the public interest by acting as a responsible advocate” for her employer.
She also insists that she was following the principles enshrined in the international code of practice for Public Relations Officer which regulate her profession.
Debono asked the Audit Office to indicate to MEPA “the basis on which he relies to conclude that the PRO did not behave in good professional practice when she publicised the enforcement orders.”
“The Audit Officer may retain his opinion that MEPA did not act in a good professional manner but to do that he must back it up with competent authorities on the subject. Without such basis, the remark remains gratuitous and personal,” Debono argued.
Debono added that the PR office acted in line with accepted best practice in defending her employer and that she had protected “the public interest by indicating which was not in the interest of the complainants to highlight.”
Debono herself had asked the auditor to “establish the facts of the case beyond any reasonable doubt”.
But she only expected the Audit Office to assess the planning aspects related to this case.
Asking the auditor to investigate her role as a PRO was as “inappropriate as asking the PRO to assess a set of plans, something which the PRO would decline on the grounds of lack of competence.”
The whole case was triggered by the publication of an audit report which sustained the complaint raised by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage and Mark Causon on bahalf of Alternattiva Demokratika against a private development in Hamrun.
MEPA replicated that this was a “clear case of conflict between neighbours” in which the “authorities and the media were abused” by persons who had themselves committed irregularities connected to heritage.
The Hamrun couple who lived next to the development were the first to denounce this case.
The auditor’s report sustained their claim that the heritage aspects of this application were not properly assessed. The report was made public by AD.

jdebono@mediatoday.com.mt

 



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