According to the National Audit Office, almost half of Malta’s local councils did not provide fiscal receipts to cover expenditure of almost €400,000 during 2014. To put things into perspective, about €39,500,000 were allocated to local councils for 2016.

The same yearly report shows that certain local councils lack updated financial records, exceed budgetary allocations under certain categories and have shortcomings in certain procurement practices.

The NAO also highlights the lack of audited financial statements of Malta’s nine regional committees.

As an independent State institution, the NAO enjoys universal respect and there is no reason to doubt its findings.

If anything, it is one of the few State institutions which, to date, have not been usurped by a government characterised by too many partisan appointments as well as a deficit in good governance.

Local Government Parliamentary Secretary Stefan Buontempo, who does not usually hit the headlines in terms of media coverage, was quick to react to the NAO’s report. He was reported by the press as stating that the situation is worrying, that he cannot accept the various shortcoming and that “from next year, we will bring the law to bear on councils’ operations”.

Buontempo also criticised executive secretaries of regional committees and local councils, adding that many were not doing their job well. Needless to say, the association of executive secretaries, Ansek, was not amused by Buontempo’s uncharacteristic drive.

Association secretary Paul Gatt acknowledged the worrying shortcomings highlighted by the NAO but added that its frequent appeals to have better governance fell on deaf ears. This includes lack of proper training for new executive secretaries, cases of mayors authorising expenditure without council approval and questionable guidance from the Department of Local Government.

Where do common citizens and residents stand in this situation?

I am sure many taxpayers would expect that their money is being spent properly and that all public expenditure should be covered by fiscal receipts. But, likewise, I am also sure that there are others who think that local councils are holy fountains with unlimited resources and which are accountable only to voters’ whims.

I suspect the tirade against executive secretaries is an excuse to take more power away from local councils

Those in the second category might not really care about the NAO’s recommendations. But the same cannot be said for people with a sense of civic pride and who expect good governance from the authorities.

Such individuals would expect proper enforcement on matters such as tables and chairs on public land, construction practices, usage of bus lanes, abusive parking, vendors abusively occupying public space and so forth.

The only problem here is that local councils have very little enforcementpowers and often rely on action by the police and wardens. And the latter have now been centralised into a government department, as far away as possible from local council control.

Those who expect good governance would also expect that all public funds are used in a proper manner and not just those of local councils. They would not justify local councils’ fiscal shortcomings of €400,000 in a year, but, likewise, they would not justify the millions of euros spent by the government on questionable activities, ranging from Cafe Premier to Australia Hall or the numerous partisan appointments in the public service. And, above all, they would always respect the NAO’s findings and not only when it suits them.

Indeed, given the government’s deficit in good governance, I suspect that Buontempo’s tirade against executive secretaries is an excuse to take more power away from local councils. The government is already weakening the real value of funds given to councils and making councils dependent on government schemes.

The government’s consultation with councils on various matters, from enforcement to planning, leaves much to be desired and some State entities hardly give importance to local council recommendations, requests and complaints.

By all means, make councils more responsible for their financial expenditure. But this should be matched with more rights for executive secretaries and more rights for councils themselves. This would mean subsidiarity and decentralisation, where local councils would have increasing fiscal autonomy.

In the prevailing circumstances, things are going in the opposite direction, with the government taking powers from local councils, centralising various aspects of policymaking and governing poorly in the process.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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