A row between the National Council of the Maltese Language and the Culture Ministry over Norma Saliba’s appointment to head a new government entity has taken a venomous turn.

Chat conversations seen by Times of Malta indicate that Council chair Olvin Vella received a copy of the legal notice setting up the entity three days before it was published and was also aware that Saliba was to lead it.

Vella initially told Times of Malta that he “did not know about the legal notice” until it was published and described Saliba’s appointment as a “pleasant surprise”.

Speaking on Friday, he acknowledged that he received the legal notice and word of Saliba’s appointment before they were made public, but said he believed he was being presented with a fait accompli.

Vella also said that Culture Minister Owen Bonnici tried to get him to run journalists’ questions past his ministry and suggested that the council get legal advice from government-paid lawyers.

The claims on either side add fuel to a contentious issue that has led to the Council taking legal action against the ministry, seeking to have Saliba’s appointment annulled.

Saliba, who until recently served as TVM’s head of news, was appointed as the executive director of the Centre of the Maltese Language last month.

The centre, which was established without any prior warning, is to serve as the Council’s “administrative, organisational and operational organ”.

Vella had initially welcomed the development and Saliba’s appointment.

However, the Council backtracked shortly afterwards, filing a judicial protest to scrap Saliba’s appointment claiming that it is “illegal” as the Council was not consulted over plans to open the centre and did not receive a draft of the legal notice for its feedback.

In a reply, the culture ministry vehemently denied these claims, arguing that Vella was consulted directly by permanent secretary Joyce Dimech.

Vella believed plans were a ‘fait accompli’

WhatsApp chats seen by Times of Malta indicate that Vella received a copy of the legal notice establishing the centre three days ahead of its publication. In the chat, Dimech tells Vella “Sending also LN as discussed last week”.

Speaking to Times of Malta on Friday, Vella confirmed that he was informed of the decision to appoint Saliba as early as August 1 or 2 in a phone call with Dimech, in which she explained that Saliba will be dealing with administrative issues without interfering in linguistic matters.

Vella confirmed that he was sent a copy of the legal notice, but said it struck him as a 'fait accompli'.Vella confirmed that he was sent a copy of the legal notice, but said it struck him as a 'fait accompli'.

“I thought this was a fait accompli and the permanent secretary was just informally informing me about what is happening, as often happens in other cases.”

He also acknowledged that he received a copy of the legal notice August 8. The legal notice was marked as 'reviewed'. Again, Vella says that he believed this to be a done deal, not a request for feedback.

“I’m not familiar with legal procedures and at that point thought that it had already been approved as law. At no point did the Minister or permanent secretary invite me to discuss the content”.

Vella also received a draft press release from the ministry’s communications chief announcing the launch of the centre on August 9, two days ahead of the public launch. The press release clearly described Saliba as the centre’s first executive director.

In correspondence seen by Times of Malta, Vella was asked for his approval to go ahead with the press release (Nista’ mmexxi?), to which he replied “Yes, of course” (Iva, mela).

The press release was eventually published on August 11.

The following day, Vella told Times of Malta “I did not know about the new centre. I did not know about the new legal notice”, despite having received the legal notice outlining the centre’s role days earlier.

Vella does not appear to have raised any concerns with the ministry over not being consulted over the matter at this stage.

Chats indicate Vella received a copy of the of the press release on August 9.Chats indicate Vella received a copy of the of the press release on August 9.

Likewise, the ministry does not appear to have sent the Council any formal requests for feedback or consultation, with communication primarily taking place over the phone or through online chats, rather than through official channels.

Scrambling behind the scenes

Vella says that a day after his comments were published in Times of Malta, he received a call from Culture Minister Owen Bonnici asking him to run journalists’ questions by the ministry “to bounce them off each other”, rather than replying to questions directly over the phone.

He claims that the minister called him again a few days later, asking him if it was true that the Council was not consulted.

Vella claims that he told the minister that he had been presented with a done deal and that he wanted any future Council employees to be appointed through a public call and in line with requirements issued by the Council. He says Bonnici agreed to do so.

Council meets

Admitting that he should have done so sooner, Vella called for a council meeting on August 19, following which council members decided to consult with a lawyer.

Vella was asked by council members not to attend a meeting with the minister, the permanent secretary and Norma Saliba which was planned for a few days later.

According to Vella, when Bonnici got wind of this, he offered to help the council by appointing a lawyer “for both sides”, suggesting state advocate Chris Soler or former attorney general Peter Grech as possible names.

The Council met again on August 23, this time agreeing to take legal action against Saliba’s appointment. It did so on Thursday.

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