Minister Konrad Mizzi avoided meeting NAO over ITS audit

The National Audit Office (NAO) report on the spit of land in St George’s Bay known as the ITS site raised several issues of good governance. Committees which took a passive approach, abysmal lack of documentation and a glaring lack of clarity on accountability where three of the main faults which the NAO identified. It was for this site that a voting member of the Board of the Planning Authority was ferried to and from Malta on a private jet so that she could vote on the db project application.

Chicken or egg?

The NAO said that it was still not clear why the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) was made to move from the site. The report said that such a move should have been dictated wither by curricular needs or by student demand. While neither seemed to prevail, the NAO said that, as early as 2016, there was the first documented reference that a new campus was to be set up in Smart City. However, said the report, key documents do not reflect this need. The report cited that the need to move was not found in the National Tourism Policy 2015-2020, in the ITS Strategic Plan 2015-2020 or in the (eventually withdrawn) Paceville Masterplan. “Also of concern was that the ITS Board of Governors (BoG), entrusted with providing the Institute with strategic direction, did not discuss the need for relocation in the years leading to this decision” noted the report. It added: “The fact that the decision to relocate was not ITS-driven casts doubt on the underlying objective of the relocation, and attests to the top-down approach adopted in this regard… no documentation or studies that supported the Government’s decision to dispose of the site were made available”

Lack of records

One of the opening lines of the report was an underscoring of the cavalier attitude taken in the case of accountability. This is a leitmotif of the report on the ITS site. “Of grave concern to this Office was that the Hon. Dr Konrad Mizzi, the Minister for Tourism at the time of the audit, failed to attend a meeting despite numerous attempts made,” observed the NAO. This was not the only incongruity.

According to the report, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism said that Projects Malta Ltd had sought legal advice and that this had been discussed with the Attorney General’s Office. “However, no documentation evidencing the legal input obtained was provided to this Office…The Attorney General stated that no advice was sought from or given by his Office on whether to classify the disposal as a concession” said the report. It added that “Another shortcoming that drew our attention was that no minutes of meetings held by the Negotiation Committee, whether internal, with the Seabank Consortium, or with other stakeholders, were retained”.

Passive attitude

The attitude adopted by the Negotiating Committee and the way the land was disposed of also irked the NAO. “Immediately apparent to us was that this was unorthodox disposal in that the Government Property Department (GPD), the government entity responsible for the administration of public land, was not involved in any significant way in the process of disposal, with the GPD’s role limited to the formalities required by law,” said the report. It added that “Our attention was drawn to the fact that no feasibility studies and site evaluations were carried out by Government prior to the issuance of the RFP”.

“Irrespective of whether negotiations were permissible or otherwise, we have serious doubts regarding the role fulfilled by the Negotiation Committee… A major concern that emerged was the absence of any input by one of the members of the Negotiation Committee, an architect by profession, who was presumably appointed for his technical expertise… Similarly, the Chair Negotiation Committee was conspicuously absent in the workings of the Negotiation Committee” said the report, adding that the bulk of the decisions were taken by the OPM advisor.

‘Inappropriately prioritised’

The NAO report concluded that “In our opinion, the decision to dispose of the site was inappropriately prioritised over the relocation of the ITS when reason would dictate that the inverse should have happened. The false sense of urgency that drove Government to dispose of the site, despite the fact that no alternative premises had yet been secured for the ITS and that the development masterplan for the area had not yet been set, was of concern. The evidence reviewed by us indicates that the relocation of the ITS was a secondary effect of the decision to dispose of its premises, with no reference to the plan to relocate the Institute featuring in any strategic document or policy-related thereto. Further shortcomings in terms of governance were that the basis of the decision to relocate was not supported by any analyses, while Government failed to involve the ITS Board of Governors in a key strategic decision such as this”.