The proposed City Centre project from the outside (left) and the inside (right)
After almost 24 hours of across-the-board criticism, the Planning Authority has put together an excuse for why it paid thousands of euros on a private jet to fly one of its board members from a holiday in Sicily and back so she could be present for a vote on the db Group’s high-rise project in Pembroke.
The PA said it wanted to ensure all 14 of its board members were present for the meeting as a response to public criticism aired at in July 2016, when Environment Authority chairman Victor Axiak was absent from a vote on the Townsquare high-rise in Sliema.
Yet this explanation is disingenuous at best.
Firstly, Axiak’s absence from the Townsquare meeting was so controversial because his vote could well have swung the PA’s decision the other way. The Townsquare tower only passed by seven votes to six, meaning Axiak voting against it would have created a deadlock and handed a casting vote to PA chairman Vince Cassar, who had opposed the project.
Axiak later said he would have crawled to the meeting against his cardiologist’s advice had he known his vote would have made such a difference.
The Planning Authority’s executive chairman Johann Buttigieg
The government hasn’t exactly been eager to amend a legal anomaly that prevented Axiak from sending a representative to the Townsquare meeting in his stead. Environment Minister Jose Herrera said shortly after the vote that the necessary legal amendments were being drafted to allow board members to be substituted in case of illness, but nothing has materialised two years down the line.
Contrast Axiak’s situation to that of Jacqueline Gili, who didn’t utter a word during the three-hour PA meeting, before ultimately joining a 10-4 majority in voting in favour of the project. With all due respect, it is hard to argue that her contribution to the meeting was so crucial that it warranted splashing out €8,750 of public funds on a private jet to ensure her presence.
Moreover, the PA’s claim that it learned its lesson about the importance of a full house when discussing high-profile projects doesn’t even hold water in the first place.
In January of this year, after the Townsquare vote but before the db City Centre vote, the Planning Authority approved the construction of the 32-storey Mercury Towers in the heart of Paceville. Media reports show that this project was approved by 10 votes in favour and three against, meaning one of the 14 PA board members was absent.
PA chairman Vince Cassar. Photo: TVM
In fact, the PA’s excuse makes so little sense that it has been contradicted by none other than its own chairman.
In comments to MaltaToday, Vince Cassar said it would not have been “the end of the world” if a board member had absented herself from the db City Centre vote as a quorum had already been reached.
“There was no necessity to ensure that all members were present for this particular vote,” he said, while confirming that the PA’s decision to fly in a board member was unprecedented.
So why did the PA, against the advice of its own chairman, believe that a full house was so important in this case that it justified spending €8,750 to charter Gili to Malta?
If the PA can get away with this case by offering an excuse that doesn’t even add up, then it can get away with anything.