Stopping the rot | Chris Said

While applauding recent government clampdowns on corruption, Parliamentary Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister Chris Said says that more needs to be done to combat the persistent trend

Faced with what looks like an epidemic shaking public trust in local government, Chris Said, the parliamentary secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister responsible for local councils, insists that the fact that a number of Nationalist mayors have been booked is proof enough that the government is fighting corruption. But he admits that the vetting of local council candidates by his party leaves a lot to be desired.

The last time I met Chris Said was during an interview held a few months before the 2008 general election when he was still mayor of Nadur, when I asked him pertinent questions on planning irregularities involving his brothers, he shocked me by producing an email showing that he had denounced his own brothers to MEPA before these cases even appeared on the media. 

Some interpreted this as a calculated political move to distance himself from a potential source of trouble, while others saw it as a genuine stance of an honest mayor who rose above the endemic culture of favouritism, which is particularly strong in Gozo. 

Ironically, the former mayor is now presiding over the greatest “morality” crisis facing local councils since their inception 17 years ago.  How does he react to the perception that the rot in widespread and spreading fast?

“This situation annoys me a lot. It also makes me ask myself questions… But one should also keep in mind we have more than 450 councillors, most of whom are doing a good job despite all the limitations they face, especially in view of the fact that they have their own jobs and their commitment to the locality is voluntary.”

With three mayors resigning in the space of a few weeks, and the Nationalist Mayor of Sliema arraigned in court and expelled by his party, is he not worried by the perception that the rot seems to be spreading fast?

Said is quick to point out that this could well be a consequence of the reform of local councils over which he presided in the past year. For the reform which strengthens transparency and accountability may well have been the reason why these cases are only coming to the surface now, according to Said.

One major aspect of the reform is that it strengthens the supervisory role of the department responsible for monitoring local councils over local councils.

“There is a link between the reform and those cases which happened recently, with regards to cases involving infringements of the law governing local councils.”

One of the most radical changes brought about by the reform is that it made executive secretaries directly accountable to the department rather than to the local council. 

“Before the reform the executive secretaries where chosen and paid by the council.  The decision whether to extend their contract or not was also taken by the council. They were completely at the mercy of the council.”

All this has changed, as executive secretaries cannot have their employment terminated by the council.

“We have come to a situation where the executive secretary is completely accountable to the department when it comes to the observance of financial regulations and procedures.”

Neither can a council terminate their employment for they are now considered as the direct employees of the department.

“The aim of the reform is to come to a point where cases like those which we are facing today would not even occur because the executive secretaries would be able to stop any abuse before it even occurs. For example, prior to the reform, if a mayor wants to award a direct order when a tender is required, the executive secretary was in very ambiguous position as he was at the council’s mercy. Now the executive secretary is duty-bound to inform the council of the illegality and if they persist in error the secretary is obliged to report them to the department without fear of losing his or her job.”

The council can still recommend the sacking of the secretary, but in order to do so it has to present its reasons to the department.

“The final decision is always taken by the department. Surely the secretary will not be sacked if his or her only fault is that of  keeping the brakes on financial irregularities.”

I point out that devolution of power has created a situation where lay people with little experience on financial matters are administrating 30 million of public funds (up from a sheer 7 million when councils were set up) and taking decisions on road, waste and cleaning contracts costing considerable sums of money. Councils have also received a total of 8.5 million in EU funds. Is the present class of local councillors up to it?

Said is convinced that the majority of councillors are up to the task, especially when equipped with trained staff. For this aim, the government is investing in the training of executive secretaries.

He also recommends that councils should refrain from awarding councils themselves but should seek the assistance of experts.

“They are lay people and should refrain from awarding contracts in which as lay people they do not have any expertise in the same way as Ministers do not adjudicate tenders but delegate this responsibility to the contracts department.”

Said laments that since at the beginning contracts were a lot smaller, councils got used to adjudicating tenders in council meetings, even if they lacked the know how.

“Unfortunately, we have the mentality that as soon as we elect five people in the council they are expected to become experts on everything, experts in accounting, roads and waste collection. This is wrong.”

The department is also offering introductory courses to all councillors as well as more specialised courses.

“We have increased funding for local councils.  We have increased their staff.  We have also created a legal framework. But all this is useless if councillors do not know how to use them.”

Said expresses his disappointment that while most councillors attend an introductory five week course after they are elected, attendance in subsequent more specialised courses is often poor.

Yet training after councillors are elected is only part of the equation. Equally important is the vetting taking place before they are presented by the parties to the electorate.

Chris Said does not mince his words.

“I would like a better vetting of candidates. This means that the vetting we have today is not good enough. What I am concretely proposing is that before choosing candidates the party should delve deeper in the background of those who are contacted to contest these elections.”

But Said agrees with the current system, through which the most voted candidate within the list of the party winning the majority of seats in a council is automatically made mayor.

But he admits that popularity and competence do not always match.

“There is no doubt that the current system favours those who are most popular and these are not necessarily the most competent”.

But he also points out that a good mayor is not necessarily one who has a professional or academic background.

“A good mayor does not need to be an expert… it all depends on his or her ability to use the tools he has available to him in the council.”

Despite its shortcomings the current system of making the most voted candidate of the winning party mayor has its advantages over the previous regime, which put the responsibility of electing the mayor on the councillors who were expected to elect a mayor from their own ranks on the first council meeting.

“Prior to the introduction of this system five years ago, there were lots of divisions.  It meant that from day one, many councils were exposed to a divisive election as the mayor was elected from among five, seven or nine people.”

An alternative system would see each party fielding its candidate for mayor and the electorate making the final choice. 

Said claims that he had considered introducing this system in the reform process. 

“The advantage of this system is that all those forming part of the party list know from day one that they form part of a team led by a prospective mayor. This means that people who have problems working with this person won’t even contest the election with his list.”

But one major shortcoming of the system according to Said is that it would be the party and not the people who propose the mayor.

“The major advantage of the present system is that the mayor is chosen by the people.  It is not perfect but no system is perfect.”

One pitfall of the current system is that candidates with money to spend in their campaigns could have an advantage over others, especially in view of the fact that there is no enforcement of campaign spending regulations.  In fact nobody has been arraigned in court for overspending.

But Said insists that at local council level money does not play a big part.

“As far as I know, campaigns at local level do not cost a lot of money and parties forbid individual campaigning.”

I refer to cases in which candidates organised receptions or even invested in personal phone calls urging constituents to vote for particular candidates. But these cases are the exception and not the rule, insists Said.

Judging by the fact that 21 members of the present parliament are former councillors or mayors, is there a risk that councillors are considering councils as a rung on the political ladder, rather than end in itself?

Chris Said himself is living testimony to this, having been first a councillor, then a mayor, then a MP and finally a junior minister. Speaking from personal experience, Said thinks that his past experience as mayor was very helpful in his present role as parliamentarian and parliamentary secretary.

Is there a risk that some councillors or mayors would be more interested in building patronage networks to secure their election as MPs, rather than making life better for residents?

“There is always a risk and that is why we have strengthened the system of checks and balances to ensure that mayors are scrutinised by other councillors and by the executive secretary so that public funds are never used to dispense favours.”

But there is also another side to the argument; mayors who serve their locality well by being good administrators also gain popularity in their districts.

“If there is a mayor in any locality who performs well by improving the state of the roads or by organising cultural activities, he would naturally project an image of good governance, which is apparent not just to residents but also to people living elsewhere in the district. Obviously, this will make him more popular and electable. If all this is done legally, there is absolutely nothing wrong in a councillor or mayor becoming a MP on these merits.”

The spate of bribery cases effecting PN-led councils has fuelled the perception that corruption is widespread and spreading. As the parliamentary secretary in charge of the government’s communication strategy how does he address this growing perception?

“If the government was not fighting corruption none of these cases would have emerged. If we had institutionalised corruption, everybody out there would know that corruption exists but no action is taken against it. Unfortunately when action is taken, this fuels the perception that corruption exists. This is natural.”

According to Said, the current spate of scandals involving Nationalist mayors is proof that corruption is not institutionalised.

“If corruption was institutionalised the government would have covered up for mayors belonging the Nationalist Party. But we are not doing so. As soon as an allegation surfaces up we take it to the police if it’s a criminal matter, to the Internal Audit and Investigations Department if it’s a case involving breach in financial procedures or even to the Auditor General.”

Even when it comes to petty abuses in local councils, a governance board whose job is to investigate breaches of ethics has been set up.

“If a resident complains that is not being taken care by the council because he is at odds with the mayor or because he is of a different political colour, at no cost he can take his case to this board which hears all the parties.”

I point out that while it might well be the case that the government has brought local councils under scrutiny, political parties whose candidates form councils and even government are not subjected to any control. A report by the council of Europe has recommended that Maltese political parties should have their accounts audited and that political donations are declared. Only than would we know which hands are feeding the party in government and whether these donations condition policies and contracts.

Said concurs on the need of a reform on party financing.

“In fact we have recognised this need.  It falls under the remit of the select committee appointed at the beginning of the legislature. Unfortunately Labour has withdrawn from this committee which is no longer meeting.”

Chris Said also reveals that the government will soon present a whistleblower act in parliament – a long awaited electoral promise.

“Work on this bill is at a very advanced stage and although this matter not fall under my responsibility I am aware that the bill will be presented in the coming weeks or months.”

He also points that it was the Nationalist government which set up institutions of scrutiny, such as the ombudsman.

But does it not often happen that despite investigations confirming irregularities the government simply sits on these reports? A case in point was the Auditor General’s report on the procurement process for the Delimara power station. Despite reporting a number of irregularities, the tender was never withdrawn.

Said is quick to point out the “auditor did not find any evidence of corruption and that the government has taken steps to ensure that the irregularities mentioned in the report are not repeated in the future… The irregularities were not on a scale which warranted the annulment of the tender.”

Apart from the corruption issue, another contentious issue facing the PN is divorce, which was forced in to parliamentary agenda by rebel MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.    Said’s personal position is presently against the introduction of divorce but he would not commit himself on how he would vote if the bill is debated in Parliament.

“We should discuss this issue calmly and everyone should express his or her views. At this stage although I am personally against (divorce) I am listening to the various arguments.”

Apart from listening to what civil society has to say on this issue, he also makes it a point that one important consideration in his mind would be what his (Gozitan) electorate has to say.

“I do not represent myself in parliament. At this stage, if I am asked to vote on this issue in Parliament, I will be weighing the various arguments from all these quarters and only then take a personal decision.”

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