NEWS | Sunday, 21 September 2008

Heat turns on Galdes as Auditor accepts AG’s advice

MEPA Auditor Joe Falzon, who last week questioned the legality of Austin Walker’s appointment as executive chairman of the Malta, now considers the matter closed after confirmation of the appointment by the Attorney General. But doubts remain regarding the position of Labour MP Roderick Galdes, as Opposition representative to the MEPA board.
Discussions are still ongoing between MEPA and Roderick Galdes on whether his appointment as the Opposition representative is legal or not.
Galdes’ position on the MEPA board was also deemed untenable by Auditor Joe Falzon because of his full-time employment with MEPA.
Moreover, in a meeting with Auditor Joe Falzon, chairman Austin Walker committed himself not to take any role whatsoever in the processing of planning applications or any matter related to them.
Falzon had censured his predecessor Andew Calleja for taking part in meeting with private developers before their application was determined.
Last week Falzon also warned of a potential conflict of interest because Walker’s appointment as executive chairman risked institutionalising this unhappy state of affairs.
“Austin Walker’s double role as chairman of the board and MEPA’s full-time employee could expose him to a conflict of interest. Being responsible for all that happens within MEPA, he does not enter board meetings with a clean slate,” Falzon warned last week.
But following last week’s meeting the air has cleared between MEPA’s watchdog and its new executive head.
“He confirmed that the separation of duties between the Planning Directorate and the decision makers would remain and he will not take any role whatsoever in the processing of planning applications or any matter related to them,” Falzon told MaltaToday.
Falzon had questioned the legality of the chairman’s appointment citing articles in the Development Planning Act which ban employees of public agencies like MEPA from serving on decision making board. Falzon had asked the chairman to seek the advice of the attorney general whether his position is legal or not.
But on Monday the Attorney General wrote to the Prime Minister to confirm the legality of Walker’s appointment.
“I am pleased to note that the press report on MaltaToday has resulted in prompt action from the Prime Minister concerning the problem, as advised by myself,” Falzon told MaltaToday.
He also expressed his satisfaction that the problem has been adequately dealt with, and he considers the “matter is closed as far” as far as he is concerned.
Falzon took note of the Attorney General’s opinion that Austin Walker’s appointment as an executive chairman is not in any way illegal.
“I am pleased to note that the Chairman followed my recommendation and sought advice from this source. I have also seen the internal legal advice given to the Chairman which is similar to that given by the AG,” Falzon said.
The AG’s advice was based on the premise that the purpose of the law was not to exclude board members from receiving remuneration from MEPA after their appointment but to exclude people who are already holding “certain offices or performing certain functions in government agencies from being eligible for appointment to the authority.”
While this argument applies to Austin Walker, it does not apply to Galdes who was already a MEPA employee before his appointment. But Galdes is also citing his own party’s legal advice that his position is tenable.
Galdes under pressure
Following last week’s report on MaltaToday in which the Auditor expressed doubts on Galdes’ position, the Labour MP wrote back to Falzon citing legal advice that his position on the board as the Opposition’s representative is not by the fact that he is a full time employee at MEPA.
He also confirmed that the Opposition had sought legal advice before appointing him on the board.
But in his reply to Galdes’ letter, the auditor expressed disagreement with Galdes’ interpretation of the law.
Galdes insists that a proviso at the beginning of the article which bans public employees from serving in the Authority’s board, effectively allows him to serve on the board as the Opposition’s representative.
But according to Falzon the proviso is only meant to avoid a conflict with another article which bans all members of parliament from serving on the MEPA board.
“There are no provisos for employees of Government agencies. Consequently I reiterate my belief that your appointment is illegal.”
But Galdes has written back to the Auditor citing the parliamentary debate when the law was approved.
“It is clear that the intention of the legislator was intended to ensure that the independent members of the board are not subjected to pressure due to their public appointment.”
Galdes insists that the ban on public service employment only applies to the independent members on the board and not to the two MPs who also serve on the board.
“In no way can one refer to my position in the board as an independent one, considering the fact that I was nominated by the Leader of the Opposition as an MP,” Galdes said in his letter to the auditor.
Falzon contends that “a final decision on the matter can only be taken by the Courts.”
MEPA has so far been silent on the legality of Galdes’ appointment.
Speaking on PBS on Monday MEPA chairman confirmed that the Autority already has legal advice on Galdes’ appointment and that this advice was different the one given on the legality of his own position.
Contacted by MaltaToday Walker would not reveal whether MEPA considers Galdes’ position on the board as tenable or not. Neither would he reveal the content of the legal advice it has.
“Discussions are still going on and I think it would be unfair towards Roderick Galdes to pronounce myself at this stage… I am sure that the MLP has its own legal advice on this matter and I respect his position as the Opposition’s representative on the board… My only aim is to ensure that the best decision is taken.”

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