Private jet decision censured
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Private jet decision censured

When, in September last year, Planning Authority executive chairman, Johann Buttigieg, hired a private jet to fly to Malta a board member holidaying in Sicily to be able to vote on the db Group’s mega-development project in St George’s Bay, many could hardly believe it. His decision was so patently wrong – from all angles – that an official censure was a foregone conclusion.

The censure did not take long to come either, though it does not seem to be strong enough. In an assessment of the decision, made following a complaint by former Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Arnold Cassola, the Ombudsman said that Mr Buttigieg’s intervention “can be interpreted as if there were an unwarranted influence on the said member of the board”.

Giving Mr Buttigieg the benefit of the doubt, he may not have intended to exert any influence but this was how it was generally interpreted. The Ombudsman was asked to see whether the decision to fly a board member from abroad was a case of maladministration and whether it was discriminatory towards applications and objectors in other cases when no such measures were taken.

Environment Commissioner Alan Saliba could not be clearer when he said that neither the Planning Authority nor the executive should intervene to ensure that board members attend meetings. This, he said, was in conformity with the basic principle that each member of the Planning Authority board should be left at liberty to attend a meeting, to listen to the various representations and, finally, to decide when the vote is taken.

This would seem to have been obvious to all. However, for some reason, Mr Buttigieg appears to have been overly concerned over the possibility that the planning watchdog would be criticised if not all board members were present for the vote, as had happened in 2016 when the present Environment and Resource Authority chairman, Victor Asciak, was unable to attend and vote on the Mrieħel high-rise application because he had been indisposed.

Once appointed, it is surely up to board members to ensure they attend board meetings, more so when important votes are to be taken.

The environment commissioner also remarked that the executive chairman should not be seen as having any part in a board’s final decision or in any single vote. Indeed, the board could have carried on and voted on the project without the participation of the member who was holidaying in Sicily at the time.

As it happened, the db Group’s application, which had been massively opposed by thousands of people living in the St George’s-Pembroke area as well as by the local councils of the localities there and environment groups, was approved by 10 votes to four.

There is another facet to the story – the cost of flying the board member from Sicily, which was €8,750. Considering the present administrative largesse in the shape of an endless number of consultancies being granted today, the appointment of a rising number of people employed in positions of trust and the fee the developers had to pay as part of the project application process, the amount spent on hiring the private jet may be considered minimal. But the point is it was unwarranted and a waste of taxpayer’s money.

One question remains: why did Mr Buttigieg do it?

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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