Journalists attending the hearing to determine the approval or otherwise of the Fort Cambridge development project in Sliema found a press statement in which the authority wrote that the project had been approved. This happened before the hearing actually started, and obviously made the headlines more than the fact that the project was later given the green light.
Asked to explain, newly-appointed chairman Austin Walker said that Mepa had prepared two press statements – one saying that the project had been approved, and another that it had been turned down – but when asked to provide the journalists with the latter statement, he was not in a position to do so.
Mepa official Peter Gingell later pointed fingers at a prying journalist, but at the end of the day it is the media’s role not only to report what takes place, but also to investigate and ask questions, and expose any deficiencies that it deems that the public should know. In this case, the media was doing its job and was doing it well. Hiding such happenings would have been tantamount to playing a part in the mix-up.
We must be clear that the drafting of a press release prior to the hearing does not constitute an irregularity or imply that there was any irregularity. But at the same time Mepa could have avoided such a mishap that puts it in so much bad light.
The authority is there to decide what there is to decide with regard to planning and the environment. This has to be done in the utmost fairness to the developers of projects and to people who are protesting against their approval. More than this, the people must see that Mepa is being fair in its judgments, very much in the same way that justice should be done and it should be seen that it is being done.
Last Thursday’s incident dents this concept, and it certainly does not help the people to believe that everything is being done fairly.
It must be recalled that the environment – and specifically Mepa – was a hot topic before the election. Considering all that was being said and written, Mepa was an issue that could have swayed the electorate one way or another. It was one of the major worries the Nationalist Party had in seeking re-election.
It was only when Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi stated that, if re-elected to government, he would have taken Mepa under his wing, that the Nationalist Party scored some points in the eyes of the electorate, given Dr Gonzi’s record in the areas he was responsible for as minister and prime minister.
His first official appointment upon being re-elected as prime minister was to visit the Mepa offices and come up with a code of ethics. This confirmed Dr Gonzi’s intentions to give a new lease of life to Mepa as well as instil confidence in the employees. Later, a new chairman was appointed so as to give further proof that the government wanted a new chapter to start.
But incidents such as the one that took place last Thursday show that Dr Gonzi still has a long road ahead of him to bring order at Mepa. Of course, four months is still too little time for any judgments to be made.
Yet the people are expecting results from the Prime Minister. The quicker the better.