With news breaking almost daily about alleged wrongdoing at local councils, what is causing this mayhem?
At least nine of Malta’s 68 local councils have been in the media in recent months in connection with alleged wrongdoing or because of major rifts between councillors of the same party.
And there seems to be no stopping the trend. Yesterday, The Times revealed that Labour had asked the Gżira deputy mayor to resign from the party after it discovered he faced criminal proceedings unrelated to council work.
Add these situations to a spate of investigations and forced resignations for mismanagement, and people are left asking what caused this storm.
Parliamentary Secretary for local councils Chris Said still believes the situation does not reflect a crisis but is simply a patch of “turbulence” from which councils will emerge.
He said it was unfortunate that the misdeeds of a handful of people were casting a shadow on the excellent work being done by the “absolute majority” of the 450 councillors serving the country, but insisted that the problems would be temporary.
To a certain extent, he pointed out, the situation was to be expected since many of the “allegations” coming to the surface were the result of improved scrutiny brought about by the reform of the Local Councils Act, which came into effect earlier this year.
The most significant change is the one which made executive secretaries directly answerable to the Department of Local Government, rather than councillors.
The argument behind the change was precisely that secretaries would be more willing to raise questions about councillors’ wrongdoings if their job and performance benefits did not depend on them.
“Executive secretaries are now in a better position to control the council’s operations and to bring to light any possible irregularity”.
Moreover, the reform also brought with it new checks and balances such as the setting up of the Board of Local Governance, which receives complaints related to improper operations of councils.
At the same time, the monitoring unit within the department was strengthened and given more powers to investigate claims.
However, according to Labour deputy leader Toni Abela the situation within councils is a reflection of the general decay in governance at national level.
“It is a moral question,” he said, insisting the government was not in a position to dictate to councils how they run their affairs.
He cites as an example of mismanagement and lack of transparency the power station extension saga, the mishandling of EU educational funds, and the allegations of corruption in the super yacht tender, which were only investigated some nine months after they were made.
“Ministers are not being held accountable and serious questions of maladministration raised by the Auditor General every year are not addressed. This erodes government’s credibility since it does not have the moral high ground to dictate to councils,” Dr Abela said.
He insisted that “this state of moral malaise has hit every level of public administration” and does not rule out that some Labour councillors may also have been “infected”.
“It was the Labour Party that started all this a year ago in Żebbuġ, Malta, when it asked a mayor to resign. We have taken action in Fgura, Gżira and Tarxien. The party will not tolerate any wrongdoing,” Dr Abela said.
He also criticised the PN for taking action against its councillors now when, in some instances, the cases were known to the party for months.
“PN general secretary Paul Borg Olivier only started to take action because he was prodded to do so after reports started surfacing in the media. Dr Borg Olivier, who went on holiday with construction magnate Żaren Vassallo, is hardly in a position to speak of high ethical standards when dealing with councillors,” Dr Abela said.
MP Edwin Vassallo, responsible for the Nationalist Party’s local councils’ section, was more positive.
He said such incidents “strengthen” the party since they served as a lesson for everyone, including seasoned politicians.
“The way the PN tackled the issues that arose shows the party’s commitment to fight corruption. The party acted immediately without looking at faces or political allegiances. This, in itself, should strengthen the party’s credibility and that of local councils,” he said.
With regard to the effect of the turmoil on PN-led councils, Mr Vassallo said: “It is not a pleasant or easy experience but one which taught us a great deal and made us stronger.”
Godfrey Pirotta, who lectures on public policy at the University of Malta, believes it is time for MPs and councillors to be made liable for their actions. The system was implemented in the UK and it worked, he pointed out.
As for the reasons behind the current turmoil, Prof. Pirotta said the problem was partly a reflection of the national partisan political system, through which councillors were more driven by competition against fellow councillors or the opposing party than by an aspiration to improve things in their respective town or village.
Moreover, he said, councillors had cultivated the culture of being able to get away with mistakes because the party was there to defend them.
However, on a positive note, there seemed to have been a shift in the opposite direction now with parties acting as prosecutors of their own people.
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