Planning tribunal chair forced to recuse himself from decisions involving Joseph Portelli

Portelli Projects had demanded recusal of board chairman from all projects involving the group because Joseph Borg had objected, as a private citizen, to the company’s application in Balzan

Joseph Portelli
Joseph Portelli

Developer Joseph Portelli’s company has successfully secured the recusal of Environment and Planning Tribunal (EPRT) chairman Joseph Borg from decisions involving the construction group.

J. Portelli Projects had asked Borg to recuse himself just four hours before the EPRT was due to take decisions on appeals against the approval of two projects in Qala and Sannat proposed by Mark Agius and Eric Saliba, two associates of the property magnate.

The company said the EPRT chairman had personally objected to Portelli’s 88-apartment project in Balzan, which was revoked two weeks ago by the same tribunal, which on that occasion was chaired by Robert Sarsero.

The request was signed by lawyer Ian Stafrace who served as chief executive of the Planning Authority between 2011 and 2013.

In its decree, the tribunal noted that J. Portelli Projects did not appear in any of the documents pertaining to any of the developments for which judgment was set to be delivered that day, as well as the other application, mentioned in the request.

The application for the Balzan development was submitted by Clifton Cassar on behalf of CF Developers Limited and not on behalf of J. Portelli Projects. Moreover, the two permits on which the judgment was due to be delivered had been submitted by Eric Saliba and Mark Agius.

This effectively confirms the long-held belief by environmental activists that Saliba, Agius and their respective companies were simply fronts or associates of Joseph Portelli.

Furthermore, the tribunal insisted that its chairperson, Joseph Borg, had objected to the project in Balzan in his personal capacity, and that the legal application was intended to “gag” and stop him from exercising his rights as an “ordinary” citizen. It also accused the Portelli group of “intimidating the tribunal” noting that it had not raised any reservations on the tribunal’s composition during the proceedings themselves but waited for the last day when the tribunal’s decision was due.

Borg had made his representations against the Balzan development in a public hearing more than six months ago.

The tribunal also accused Portelli of “forum shopping” noting that recusals “cannot be invoked arbitrarily by one of the parties that may feel more comfortable or protected in front of one member of the judiciary than another.”

Yet, the EPRT chairperson still decided to recuse himself from all appeals pending in front of the tribunal in which J. Portelli Projects has a stake.

Borg recused himself because of the “principle that justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done” to ensure a “fair hearing”.

“The Chairperson has always done his duty without fear and favour and in full serenity, and thus thinks that in this case it would be just and opportune for him to recuse himself,” he said.

The two appeals on which judgments were set to be delivered last week involved sprawling apartment blocks in Sannat and Ghar Boffa in Qala on which construction is at a very advanced stage.