PA board member owns EIA consultancy, wife now appointed chief of ERA

A full-time member of the Planning Authority's planning commission could find himself having to choose between his responsibilities as a commission member and the interests of his company's potential clients

A full-time member of the Planning Authority’s planning commission could find himself in a decision-making position on projects by his own company’s potential clients.

Architect Mariello Spiteri is a shareholder and director of EMDP, an architecture firm that regularly conducts Environment Impact Assessments commissioned by private developers.

As a full-time member of the planning commission, he also decides on planning permits on a daily basis.

Although PA employees are not allowed to exercise any private practice, they still may have “interests” which have to be declared, a PA spokesperson has told MaltaToday when queried about Spiteri’s position.

The PA spokesperson said Spiteri was expected to abstain on any decision where he has a conflict of interest.

The planning commission takes decisions over some 95% of permit requests, and is composed of three architects, namely Mariello Spiteri, Simon Saliba and Elizabeth Ellul, who chairs the commission.

It is usually the higher Planning Board that takes decisions on major projects requiring EIAs. But Spiteri may find himself in a position where he decides on smaller projects presented by some of his company’s potential clients.

The commission’s members were appointed in November 2014 for four years following a public call for applications issued by the Office of the Prime Minister.

“All employees, whether Planning Commission members or not, whether employed on full-time basis or part-time, are prevented from exercising their professional private practice. But personnel may still have an interest in different forms and therefore it is the responsibility of the person involved to declare his or her interest,” the PA told MaltaToday.

The PA spokesperson said Mariello Spiteri had declared his “interest” in EMDP back in 2014 and that “he is not allowed to participate or vote in any applications where a conflict of interest may arise or may be perceived.”

MaltaToday asked the PA whether it sees a risk of perceived conflict of interest in view of the fact that Spiteri is part of a board which takes decisions which may affect former, present and potential clients.

“All Commission members that either have an interest or have family connections that have an interest, are obliged to declare a conflict of interest and are to abstain themselves from any such decisions,” the spokesperson said.

The system of full-time boards whose members are precluded from private practice was introduced in 2011 following various reports on the conflict of interest of the part-time planning commission members, who were concurrently hired by private developers as their architects.

One such case involved Catherine Galea, a former PA deputy chairman and chairman of the planning commission, who in 2008 resigned due to her involvement as architect in works carried out on protected land before approval from the same authority.

After the 2013 election, Robert Sarsero was appointed to the PA’s new appeals tribunal, despite himself being a private architect. Sarsero abstains on cases where he might have a conflict of interest and is not a full-time employee of the organisation.

Spiteri’s wife appointed ERA CEO

In July 2017 Louise Spiteri – who is married to Mariello Spiteri – was also appointed CEO of the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), which is responsible for monitoring the environmental impact assessments and deciding whether a project requires an EIA or not.

Spiteri is a full-time assistant lecturer at the University of Malta and already served on the ERA board.

A probe by MaltaToday confirmed that the ERA CEO’s role in the EIA process is extremely limited in what appears to be a very rigorous process. A spokesperson for environment minister Jose Herrera described Spiteri’s role as one of an “executive nature.”

“The provisions of the Environmental Protection Act and other internal controls adopted by the Authority leave no room for conflicts of interests.”

EIAs are first reviewed by ERA’s directorate composed of technical experts, then issued for public consultation and are finally reviewed and approved by the board of directors, in which Spiteri is a non-voting member. Once approved, these are submitted to the Planning Authority for their consideration.