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Update 2 | ‘I was treated like dirt’ – MEPA ombudsman Joe Falzon
Government will not renew term of office for MEPA audit officer Joe Falzon.
27 July 2012, 12:00am
Adds Labour's statement at 2:01pm
Adds Environment Ministry's statement at 4:11pm
The audit officer for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority Joe Falzon has been informed by Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino that his term will expire on 1 August, after the new law setting up the role of a Commissioner for Planning and the Environment comes into effect.
While appreciating the "personal initiative" of the Ombudsman to inform him, Falzon expressed his disappointment that nobody from the Malta Environment and Planning Authority had the decency to inform him that his services will no longer be required.
"After eight years serving the Authority, I was treated like a piece of dirt. Nobody had the decency to inform me... not even by email," Falzon told MaltaToday.
Falzon confirmed that he is still concluding a number of reports.
In a statement issued by Alternattiva Demokratika, chairperson Michael Briguglio said "The removal of Joe Falzon from the post of Mepa audit officer keeps confirming that the authority, like the Government, is structured to act in the interests of big business developers, rather than for environmental protection and sustainability".
The Labour Party also hit out at the decision to remove Falzon and said his removal is typical of the Lawrence Gonzi administration.
While thanking Falzon for his work, Labour MP Leo Brincat said Falzon carried his duties with integrity and was removed to "pay him back" for uncovering a series of environmental scandals under the helm of prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and former environment al minister George Pullicino.
"Instead of showing a safe pair of hands with who put prudence and vigilance aside, Gonzi PN has removed a person who really proved to be a pair of safe hands," the MP said.
Brincat also noted that when Falzon censured the government and Mepa, the authority's auditor was attacked and criticised by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Mepa chairman Austin Walker.
The MP added that "it is useless to discuss a national environmental policy when who is at the helm impatiently removes whoever is critical of environmental dilapidation."
In an ironic jibe, Brincat said Falzon's removal will allow the government and Mepa to work in more tranquility.
On its part, the environment ministry expressed its appreciation for the work carried out by Falzon and pointed out that his term of office was extended more than once by government.
The ministry explained that upon the expiry of his second term of appointment in 2010, Falzon's term of office was renewed for subsequent periods of three months until such time as the amendments to the Ombudsman Act 17/2010 came into effect and the Commissioner for the Environment in the Office of the Ombudsman is appointed.
"The changes in the Ombudsman Act which envisaged the removal of the Office of the Auditor within Mepa and the appointment of a Commissioner for the Environment within the Office of the Ombudsman were made with the unanimous consent of Parliament and are designed to strengthen the scrutiny of work done by Mepa given that the Office of the Ombudsman and its Commissioners are not answerable to Government or to Mepa but to Parliament."
It also noted that the appointment of the commissioner is made in agreement between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
If such agreement is not reached within a specified period of time then it is up to the Ombudsman to identify and appoint a suitable person for the position, the ministry explained.
"The Ombudsman was informed some time back that the discussions between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were not conclusive and that the decision according to the Law now fell within his responsibility."
The environment ministry added that since the government has not received notification from the Office of the Ombudsman on the appointment of the commissioner for the environment it was not in a position to advise Falzon on an appointment which is to be affected by the Office of the Ombudsman.
It added that Mepa will be working with Falzon and the Office of the Ombudsman to ensure a smooth transition once a Commissioner for the Environment is appointed by the Office of the Ombudsman.
Falzon's annual report for 2011 is still unpublished as MEPA has yet to issue its own annual report which includes reports by its various officials.
Auditor Joe Falzon's appointment was extended for an "indefinite period" in June 2011 until the new law creating the new post of Commissioner for Planning and the Environment to replace the audit officer - currently occupied by Falzon - comes into effect.
Falzon's second term as MEPA auditor expired in July 2010, but was extended until January 2011.
On that occasion, the term was prolonged for a further two months until the law regulating the appointment of the Commissioner for Planning and the Environment within the Office of the Ombudsman comes into effect.
The new officer replaces the role of auditor and falls under the office of the parliamentary ombudsman. The person chosen will be one "on whose name there is agreement between the government and the opposition" - in the absence of an agreement the choice will be made by the Ombudsman.
Although the law has been approved, the legal notice, which brings it in to effect, has still to be issued.
Falzon has served as MEPA auditor since 2004, being twice appointed by the government in his position despite his very frank criticism of the authority, which falls under his scrutiny. Falzon was asked by the Prime Minister to investigate a permit for the notorious Spin Valley disco on the land in Mistra owned by Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, while one of his reports on the approval of a supermarket in Safi also led to resignation of the development control commission, prior to the 2008 general elections.
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...