‘I only implement the policies… government makes them’ - www.maltatoday.com.mt
Sunday, 22 July 2007
Andrew Calleja was in media-friendly mode last Friday. He talks to Saviour Balzan about his role in implementing policies and gives his word on Ramla l-Hamra, Astrid Vella, Carmel Cacopardo and the work that never gets mentioned by the media.
Walking up to the chairman’s office at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, I am greeted by portraits of the chairmen of this 14-year-old authority and it’s with some irony that there is no room left on the wall for the portrait of Andrew Calleja once his term is up – almost presaging his legacy in these last turbulent years at MEPA.
MEPA’s premises are practically deserted as even this authority, a young one by the standards of government bureaucracy, opts to retain the well-worn government tradition to send everybody to the beach when siesta time kicks in during summer.
Still, two people who are not on the beach are Andrew Calleja and his trusty PRO Sylvana Debono, who greet me at the office at St Francis Ravelin. Calleja, not a great extrovert himself, makes no secret of his uneasiness with the media, which is why I choose to keep the tape recorder away from him.
I come to the point over the controversial decision to allow development at Ramla l-Hamra – did he expect the public furore?
“MEPA bases its decisions on technical advice and the whole process goes through a procedure that is guided by a clear-cut and well known practice. The board can either endorse or disagree with what the directorate suggests. At Ramla studies were carried out and they were deemed sufficient enough for the locality and type of project.”
But why had they pushed the Ramla project forward without any form of public consultation?
Calleja gestures correctively. “Every application is scrutinised and open to the public, and the development proposal at Ramla was first agreed to two years ago, as an outline development and no-one opposed the project then.”
I ask why MEPA refused a development proposal in 1995 – one which was ruled out for its “unacceptable urbanisation” by force of just one villa, but not in 2007 with 23 self-catering villas. “The 1995 proposal was an application for a residential permit; this one is not and that it was why it was accepted.”
But surely, the change of use from tourist to residential could be made in the future and everyone believes that this will happen… “Not with these policies, the policies are very clear about this.”
I explain that MEPA’s decision on Ramla boomeranged onto government’s green credentials. the “Who makes the policies?” he quipped. “It is government, not MEPA and we implement government policies,” evidently brushing off responsibility for government’s own claims.
He continues: “If the legislator thinks that the policies need updating that it is the role of the legislator to address this problem.”
Would he have changed his approach to the Ramla question, if he had seen what was going to happen? “No, I would not have changed anything.”
“I cannot understand why all this has happened… Why does no one in the media ask why the councillors in the Xaghra local council, who today are protesting against Ramla, hadn’t opposed the proposed project when the application was first discussed two years ago?”
Calleja explains how all local councils are asked according to a procedure for their views on projects of similar magnitude.
I turn to his hazy claim to ‘boycott’ Astrid Vella and the umbrella organisation Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, who were amongst the most vocal in calling for the MEPA board’s resignation following the Ramla l-Hamra decision. Did he have to say that he would ‘boycott’ Astrid Vella and the FAA, of course implying his abrasive manner when dealing with criticism? Was it a mistake?
“I corrected myself in front of the press after I mentioned the word ‘boycott’, but the media were not interested in hearing what I had to say. I think that it is only too fair to recount what I said. Astrid Vella continued to insist on repeating untruths in the media even though the case had been explained to her personally and publicly repeated. I called a press conference to make the facts about the case clear.
“I was amazed to have seen the media continue repeating the same untruths. I only said that the FAA would have the same rights as any other organisation and that they would not be given preferential treatment.”
He steers away from admitting to a mistake. And yet you can sense he would have loved to have avoided such an incident which even his own minister, George Pullicino, seemed to distance himself from.
Before I move to another thorny issue, he reminds me the Ramla application is facing an appeal, while I turn to the controversy surrounding Carmel Cacopardo, the former PN diehard whose reappointment as investigating officer with the audit unit at MEPA has been frozen by the board.
Why has it come to this I asked, with the general public convinced that MEPA was stifling its own investigative unit that has unearthed a swathe of broken regulations, fouled policies, and irregular practices?
“We have a member of parliament here,” he says referring to MLP shadow minister for the environment Roderick Galdes who works at MEPA, “councillors, party activists and mayors, and there is no problem of tolerance to their political activity, but the Cacopardo case is a completely different story,” Calleja says, after he singled out Cacopardo for moderating a discussion held by Alternattiva Demokratika, the green party – citing this as one of the reasons why Cacopardo, whom he has already criticised as being pre-conceived in his ideas – why he could not return to MEPA.
Evidently he is prepared for these questions, and my questions come on the same day that Carmel Cacopardo lodges a judicial protest against MEPA and Andrew Calleja, claiming he had been discriminated against politically.
Calleja does not seem overly worried. “He chaired a debate which specifically discussed proposed reforms at MEPA. But he had also written a letter in the Independent criticising Martin Seychell, the selected head of the environment directorate, a post he had applied for and not been selected.”
Calleja points out that Cacopardo had been appointed by MEPA three years ago and his contract had been renewed every year. He has no qualms repeating that Cacopardo’s role as investigating officer in the audit office was incompatible with his actions.
“I cannot understand why MEPA auditor Joe Falzon continues to insist on Cacopardo,” Calleja says, referring to Falzon’s obstinate demand to have Cacopardo – an investigator whose tenacious has been noted by both friend and foe at MEPA – reinstated as his right-hand man.
And yet Calleja makes it clear that the board, the group of ministerial representatives who preside over major MEPA decisions, has no issue with Joe Falzon. I point out that Cacopardo had accused him of overstepping his brief as chairman, something that Calleja says was actually claimed by Falzon.
“This is all recorded in our annual report. MEPA is an open book. I disagree with his interpretation of my role as chairman and that is made very clear in the annual report, page 66 to be precise,” Calleja adds with a pedantic touch.
Why does the big picture at MEPA get ignored? Is this not proof MEPA is suffering from a public image problem?
“That is very unfair,” he insists. “The media are only interested in controversy. When we announced the distribution of Lm500,000 for green schemes, the media were more interested in juicy stories. Controversy sells, serious matters don’t. And MEPA is not only about 8,000 applications a year. No one seems to ask about our other projects and work, and if we had to simply look at the applications process, one should take note of the percentage of those which never get accepted.
“There is also little talk of how close we work with non-governmental organisations and the schemes that have been implemented in the last years with green groups. Put simply, what is bad is MEPA’s fault, what is good is attributed to someone else.”
I turn to MEPA’s board composition; wasn’t he concerned it was represented by political appointees? “I do not look at the politics of a person,” Calleja claims, although it is clear that the heavy government shadow on the MEPA board table is evident to everybody. “But you cannot deny that the policies are determined by government and the government has every interest in promulgating its own policies.”
If he had his way, would he change anything? He is reluctant to go into details, but I egg him on. “I think,” he says cautiously, “since we have architects at a technical level giving professional advice, we need not retain the tradition of appointing more architects on the board.”
And what about corruption at MEPA? Calleja turns to a case involving a Labour MP and architect.
“When we have allegations of corruption, we act. When years ago a member of parliament (Charles Buhagiar) mentioned a case of corruption in parliament, I invited him to this office where he showed me certain documents pertaining to the case.
“I then urged him to pass on the information so that I could take action but unfortunately, citing professional ethics to protect his client interest, he chose to retain the documents. However I initiated an internal investigation which resulted in a request to the police to pursue the matter. They did and he was arraigned in court.”
The annoying novelty is that the employee is still on full pay, despite being suspended, pending a court sentence.
“Yes, he is out on full pay, but that is what the collective agreement says and I cannot break the rules.”
He resonates the message he would love to pass on to me: that he implements policies, without fear or favour, and that he does not make the policies. But that’s a bone so many green critics of MEPA would love to pick.
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