Quotas? What quotas? | Kenneth Demartino

Warden service operator KENNETH DEMARTINO reacts to accusations that local wardens exist to squeeze money out of citizens and divert it to their private employer’s coffers

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
15 June 2015, 9:07am
Kenneth Demartino. Photo by Ray Attard
Kenneth Demartino. Photo by Ray Attard
There is an old saying that goes something like: ‘It’s a dark and dangerous job, but somebody’s got to do it...” And there are few jobs to which it applies better than that of a local warden: i.e., someone whose job is technically to enforce motoring regulations… even though most people prefer to think of it as squeezing money out of ordinary citizens, in order to enrich their own private operators.

That, at any rate, is undeniably a widespread popular perception in Malta: frequently echoed (with varying degrees of aggression) in online comments and other public arenas. And this week, the same perception was given further legitimacy by none other than government MP Stefan Buontempo, who announced that the ongoing reform of the warden system would do away with the concept of ‘quotas’.

Ask Kenneth Demartino, however – operator of the larger of Malta’s two private warden service agencies – and he will flatly deny that his local wardens operate or have ever operated on a quota system. Something clearly does not add up here… and with the government and the private warden agency supplying entirely different versions of how the traffic enforcement system actually operates, perhaps it is time to demystify this anomaly once and for all.

I meet Demartino at the Guard and Warden Service agency in San Gwann, and the first question practically asks itself. Quotas, or no quotas? Who is telling the truth here: the government, which is in the process of revising the system, or the agency, which is responsible for that system’s management? How, in a word, does this system operate? 

“Let’s go back to basics: the year 2000, when the warden system was set up. Tenders were issued for the supply of service to the local councils. What is the supply of service? Very simple: employing people, giving them uniforms, equipment, cars, motorbikes, computers, printers, the lot… and then, leasing them out to local councils for a fixed fee per hour. That is how the system started...”

OK, but that was 15 years ago. What about today? “It’s still the same. The exact same thing happens, 15 years down the line. The only difference is that about six years ago there was a reform – if you can call it that, but anyway – and the local councils, which originally managed the system, were changed into regional committees...” 

Malta, he explains, was divided into five distinct geographical ‘regions’ – four in Malta and one in Gozo – which took over responsibility for enforcement from the councils.

“A law enacted through parliament created a new entity: the regional committee. This was basically given the authority to take over and run the local warden business themselves. So when you get people saying, ‘I phoned up the local council’, and the local council says that famous expression: ‘m’ghandix x’naqsam’ [I’m not involved]…people assume that I, Kenneth Demartino, am involved. But I’m not involved: the regions are. Those regions are my clients. They request from me a number of hours of service, and I put my local wardens into a roster system…”

In this sense, the agency operates just like any other rental service.

“The best way to explain it is that there are companies in Malta that rent out cars. I rent out bodies. And when I rent out bodies, I have no motivation and no interest in whether one ticket, 10 tickets or 100 tickets are issued on a daily basis. It has zero effect on me.

"I have a service level agreement to provide trained wardens, to make sure that equipment is functional, that I have the appropriate vehicles, that I provide training to my wardens on a regular basis, etc… There is a misconception that we make money from the contraventions. That we have a vested interest to issue as many tickets as possible so that we become richer, and richer and richer. It is not the case… at all, at all, at all.”

How, then, does his agency make its money? “We are paid on an hourly basis by the regional councils to lease out wardens to their locality. It’s a self-financing programme – all the money from contraventions goes into the coffers of the regional committees. All of it. Let’s be clear: no commissions, not to me, not to the local wardens.

"When the money is received by the regions, they have to pay all the bills. They pay the commissioner for justice, they pay the prosecutor, they pay the authorised officer; they pay the salary of the executive secretaries of the regions, the honoraria of the president…. They pay Datatrak [now called ‘Locus’], the IT company that provides all the technology… and they also pay us, the Guard and Warden Service, for the wardens they hire.” 

OK, but while this may dispel the perception that Demartino’s company makes money directly off traffic contraventions, it still confirms that issuing tickets is the only source of revenue sustaining the warden system at present. So even if Demartino himself has no vested interest in issuing more tickets… the system as a whole does.

“Yes. If they don’t collect enough money from the citations, they need to put their hand in their pocket and pay us through the budgets they are given. So if anybody put a ‘quota’, it is the government… because local councils belong to the government, not to us.”

This in turn implies that a quota system does exist, even if unofficial and not operated by Demartino’s company…

“No, because I have often said publicly in the past that I, as a warden agency, do not accept any authority – whoever that authority may be – to impose a quota system on my agency. I have written to Buontempo, and… here, let me read you the relevant part…”

He fishes out a copy of the letter from a file. 

“’Dear Mr Buontempo, allow me to refer to your recent statement reaffirming that warden agencies do have a quota on fines that need to be issued on a daily basis. This is categorically denied, and was never the case in our warden agency… I am sure you are fully aware that our services are paid for by the regional council, and are based on hours deployed, and not on the number of fines issued […] It is worth pointing out that, for challenging this [i.e., attempts to impose quotas] we were in fact fined on many occasions... This clearly shows that no local warden and/or any warden agencies ever imposed quotas, or ever accepted quotas from such authorities…’”

This raises the obvious question: if the reform is not about removing quotas (which were in any case non-existent)… what is it about? In what way will this reform change the current modus operandi?

“The reform was never about quotas; and this is why, in my opinion, Stefan Buontempo should never have made such a statement. The reform was about managing an enforcement system on a national level, so one can basically say that we would have equal enforcement in all of Malta and Gozo.

“Why? Because when you have five separate regional committees, you also have five different regional policies. Under the old system, still in force today, a region could come to me and say: ‘in my area, I want you to educate, not enforce. So please, Mr Demartino, tell your wardens to go out on the roads in my region, not to issue tickets, and instead explain why [motorists] were breaking the law and giving them a warning instead of a fine’…”

In region 2, however, the policy might be to enforce zero tolerance with immediate effect. Region 3 could be an in-between situation. 

“And region 4 could be ‘happy-go-lucky, do nothing... not even give me a service’. This was possible because the different regions were autonomous. They had all the authority to take their own decisions. So Malta had five different regional policies on enforcement. And you, as the driver, would need to understand that you were in a region where there was a zero tolerance policy. So you’d need to be on your best behaviour. Then you drive into another region, where the policy is different….”

In the eyes of the public, he adds, all the confusion this gave rise to was laid at his agency’s door.

“When I keep on saying that, because of the lack of a central body that has ultimate responsibility for enforcement in Malta, we as the operators were getting hit by all the bad press. In the eyes of the public at large, there is nobody to manage the wardens on a day-to-day basis…”

Even the hours of service vary from region to region. “In one area you might find wardens operating at 5am. In another, wardens would not start operating before 10am. So again, the man in the street would need to understand this. How many times do you hear people say that wardens hide so as to ambush motorists? A barefaced lie [gidba fahxija]!”

Kenneth Demartino has meanwhile become visibly animated. “I get very emotional, as you can see. Because I’ve had enough of 15 years trying to offer a service and always being criticised. Wardens do NOT hide behind trees. It is ridiculous…”

As I recall, this was actually the subject of a satirical skit on TVM, in which a warden came abseiling down the side of a building to issue a parking ticket. But while this may be a comic exaggeration… isn’t there also an element of truth to this perception? OK, maybe they don’t hide behind trees. But you will notice that wardens tend to wait at strategic choke-points on the lookout for offenders… eg, at the exit to a tunnel, to make sure their car lights are switched on…. 

Demartino acknowledges this, but again points to the existing flaws in the present system. “Once regions are empowered to draw up policy, they could ask me to provide wardens at fixed points. E.g, ‘please put a warden just outside the Santa Venera tunnels’. So I obey. What is the popular interpretation? ‘Kenneth Demartino is putting wardens outside the tunnel to entrap people, so he can make more money.’… Now: where do I make more money…?”

He shrugs with an air of exasperation.

Again, however, the perception is only wrong in so far as the warden agencies’ remuneration is concerned. But you could still argue that the regional committees are ‘entrapping’ motorists, because issuing fines remains their only source of income…

“No. Entrapment is not acceptable under Maltese legislation...”

But wouldn’t he consider his own example as a case of entrapment?

“Not really. Let me explain. To begin with, can we agree that you do not need a warden on site to obey the law? You have a licence, you should know exactly what your licence allows you to do on the road. So if you’re over-speeding, you don’t need a speed camera to tell you that. If you park less than five metres from a corner… do you need a local warden to ‘hide’ so that he can give you a ticket? Do you know the law, or don’t you..?”

Fair enough, but there’s another issue here. We all know that over-speeding is dangerous, but it’s not the same level of danger as, say, driving through the Tigne tunnel – which is about 20 metres long, and illuminated by daylight anyway – with your lights off. So isn’t it also the case that regional committees tend to focus on the petty infringements, precisely because they’re easy money-spinners?

“No, I see it more a case that the regions are trying to deal with a local problem they have…”

But seeing as he himself takes the flak for decisions such as these… what does he actually think of the policies imposed on his wardens by the authorities?

He pauses. “I think that sometimes the regional committees do not understand what ‘equal enforcement’ means. They don’t always appreciate that there are certain contraventions which are extremely important to maintain road safety, and there are others that – yes, perhaps in certain cases are focused on too much, and do not necessarily relate to road safety. They are related more to road management. But it is up to the regional committees to comment on this. And that, I think, was the weakness in the system. And I think this government has corrected that weakness, with this reform that is going through as we speak…”

The proposed reform, he goes on, is aimed at ironing out these different regional policies into one coherent whole. “The idea is to create a regulator, which would function on a national basis, with all the executive powers to dictate to the operator – i.e., myself – the terms and conditions of the enforcement system. ‘I want so much education, so much deterrence, so much enforcement, etc.’ The national regulator will set the policy, not the regional committees. That, in my opinion, is a step in the right direction. And I think it would be very unfair of anybody to criticise the importance of having a regulator in an enforcement system…”

As it happens, the proposed reform does have its fair share of critics: not least the Opposition, which has described it as a move away from decentralisation… therefore undermining the whole purpose behind the introduction of local councils in the 1990s. 

Kenneth Demartino was directly involved – or, as he will soon explain, chose to directly involve himself – very closely with this reform process. He was also a former PN local councillor himself. What does he make of the Nationalist Party’s objections?

“Let’s talk a little about the reform itself first. The original plan was to nationalise the entire service. In other words, the private sector was going to be phased out. We were invited, like everyone else, to make our submissions after the White Paper was launched. In our submissions we explained to the government why the private sector should continue to be involved.

“We were called in; we had various meetings at all levels, from top to bottom, and we stated our case. We believe the private sector has value in an enforcement system. We are very strong believers in the concept of ‘public-private partnerships’: where the government should set policy, but management is entrusted to the private sector. Purely for efficiency purposes; because we believe the private sector can manage a labour force much better than the government. And we challenged [the government] to give us one reason why they believed they could improve the enforcement system by taking wardens under their own umbrella, and making them government employees. I think history is very clear on this point: it shows us that people employed by the government are not automatically more efficient than private sector employees…”

The government, he adds, proved willing to listen. “Some might accuse it of doing a U-turn. I prefer to think it listened to reason, and had the courage to change its mind…”

Did he have similar talks with the Opposition?

Here there is a long pause. “I’ve tried, on many occasions, to talk to the Opposition. And yes, I do hope to have the opportunity to be able to discuss the issue in further detail. That was a very diplomatic answer, by the way…”

Demartino however proves reluctant to expand on this point. “I do my utmost not to involve politics in an enforcement system, because that is very unhealthy. I do have my own political beliefs. But whatever those may be, I genuinely believe that the government is taking this enforcement programme to its next level… which is desperately needed… and I believe that if one understands why and how it is being done, I would imagine both the government and the opposition would agree with it.”