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NEWS | Sunday, 13 April 2008

PM’s new code of ethics allows MEPA chairman to keep old habits

James Debono

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi on Wednesday presented a draft code of ethics for the Malta Environment & Planning Authority, aiming to reduce conflicts of interest and restore the authority’s badly damaged credentials. But the draft code contradicts the MEPA auditor’s firm stand against the participation of present chairman Andrew Calleja in meetings with private developers.
The new code of ethics was presented for public consultation, and if accepted will be enforced by an Ethics Committee, composed of three members appointed by the Prime Minister. One of the most controversial aspects of the new code is a clause allowing the MEPA chairperson to meet private developers in the company of his underlings to discuss pending applications.
The clause states that the chairman should “preferably be in the company of the case officer or his superiors”: a practice which MEPA auditor Joe Falzon had rebuked in 2006 when he investigated chairman Andrew Calleja for meeting the developers behind the Ta’ Qali “mega-tent” application in 2006.
MaltaToday is informed that Falzon – who, together with his former colleague in the audit office Carmel Cacopardo, authored the first draft of the code of ethics – did not make this proposal.
When contacted Falzon would only say that the code of ethics presented on Wednesday was the same one he had originally proposed “with a few modifications.”
But two years ago Falzon had questioned the practice of the chairman meeting with developers in the presence of MEPA’s executive officials, saying that it sent a mixed message to employees in such meetings, who could interpret anything said by Calleja as an order.
In an interview with MaltaToday in December 2006, Falzon claimed that in the case of Calleja’s meeting with the applicants for the Ta’ Qali tent, “MEPA was going to issue a permit for a six-storey high tent the size of a football pitch through a simple Development Notification Order, with the excuse that the tent was ancillary to existing use.”
He also advised that: “the chairman should limit himself to the monitoring of the process. He has every right to ask MEPA officials to explain why an application has been left pending for months. This is commendable. What I don’t agree with is that the chairman delves in the merits of the case.”
According to Falzon, MEPA employees attending these meetings are receiving conflicting messages. “Imagine a MEPA employee hearing the chairman speaking to developers in a meeting. He could well think that everything he says is an order, which should be followed. This is very dangerous.”
On that occasion MEPA justified meetings between chairman and developers as a way to unblock situations where proposals get jammed. But the new code of ethics precludes the participation of individual board members, with the exception of the chairman, in meetings with the developers.
One such case to attract the auditor’s attention involved a meeting between the Prime Minister’s former representative on the board, Leonard Callus, and the developers of Ulysses Lodge in Ramla l-Hamra.
Callus, who remained silent throughout the meeting, afterwards said he had organised the meeting only to “identify once and for all what is legally required from the applicant”. But if the new code of ethics is approved, no such meetings will be allowed in the future.
The code of ethics does not make any reference to meetings between the holders of political office and MEPA staff. MaltaToday is informed that the auditor’s original draft included a proposal to ensure that no such contact takes place, except through the office of the Chairman.
But the code of ethics states that employees or appointees are duty-bound to reject any undue pressure intended to influence them in their decisions. For instance, the audit’s officer report on the approval of the Sant Antnin plant had criticised the involvement of former Minister George Pullicino in meetings with MEPA staff.

The proposal at a glance
The proposed code of ethics, which was presented for public consultation on Wednesday, seeks to weed out conflicts of interests in MEPA.
Board members and employees are instructed to declare any interest relative to any matter being discussed, and to withdraw from any such meetings.
This was already standard procedure in MEPA, to the extent that former board member Louis Cassar used to abstain from every meeting involving projects where he was involved as EIA consultant.
Cassar was appointed to the board specifically for his expertise in environmental matters, but his frequent absences deprived MEPA of his services in many controversial decisions.
The new code foresees this eventuality adding that if the board is faced by “frequent cases of conflicts of interests,” which “hamper” its function, appropriate action can be taken by the authority.
Yet the new code of ethics does not in any way address the potential conflict of interests faced by practising architects serving on MEPA’s various boards.
Even if they have no direct conflict of interest, these architects are taking decisions affecting past and potential future clients.
According to informed sources, the only way to solve these potential conflicts is to reduce the number of practising architects on the boards. Another way would be to preclude them from accepting any private practice. But in the absence of a substantial remuneration, few would accept such an appointment.
All MEPA employees and appointees are asked to avoid conflicts between their duties towards MEPA and their interests. They are even asked to avoid any financial or other interest or undertaking “that could compromise their duties”. They are also asked to declare in writing their professional and business interests. MEPA’s staff members are also precluded from accepting gifts or accept frequent invitations for lunches from MEPA’s clients.
The new code of ethics binds MEPA employees not “to divulge to unauthorised third parties’ confidential information to which they have access during the course of their duties”; but it gives no protection to whistleblowers who reveal abuses to the media.
From now on, MEPA’s higher echelons and grades, assistant directors and staff in the audit office, cannot seek election to political office. But the position of existing MEPA officials like Labour MP Roderick Galdes is safeguarded by a transitional clause, allowing them to serve their present and any subsequent term until they lose office. This could be interpreted as discriminatory by other MEPA employees seeking political office.
In a move which may upset any closet Freemasons in MEPA, membership in secret societies is also deemed incompatible with employment in the authority at any level.
The code of ethics even tries to regulate MEPA’s former officials and employees who are precluded from involvement in any application or planning issue in which they were previously involved as MEPA officials.
It is common practice for former MEPA officials to seek employment in the planning sector. Former MEPA employee Adrian Mallia founded a company hired by the government to coordinate the impact assessments for the aborted Xaghra l-Hamra golf course. Others like former MEPA director Stephen Farrugia were employed by private developers.
The code of ethics states that: “employees should ensure that they do not accept employment or engage in activities which may cast doubts on their own integrity or that of MEPA.”
Although this seems well-intentioned, it would be difficult for MEPA to legally enforce any restraint on its former employees.


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