In the latest twist in a saga that has already dominated lengthy council meetings fraught with problems, autistic children have been evicted from an unused room at Xewkija’s council-run library where they were receiving occupational therapy.
The sudden, damaging eviction came after the council unanimously voted to allow the charity Voice for Inclusion to continue using the room to host an occupational therapist until the NGO moved to its own premises in the coming weeks.
Yet nine days later, the NGO’s president received an email from the council’s lawyer that threatened “immediate” legal action and police involvement if the NGO didn’t vacate the room within four days. The lawyer, Kevin Mompalao, also requested payment of legal fees pertaining to the letter.
Following the latest move, the NGO complied and moved to a room provided freely by the Xewkija Band Club.
“The move has set the children back in their therapy,” the NGO’s president, Pauliana Said, told The Shift. “Autistic children take time to adjust to a new environment, and the new room at the band club is not as child-friendly as the room at the library, which is painted in colours and has a feature wall.”
The children would have to move again in the coming weeks after the NGO is expected to move into premises provided by the Gozo Ministry.
The saga goes back four months, when the Council had voted to allow the occupational therapist to use the premises for a few months until the NGO secured its premises.
Then, at the beginning of August, Said wrote an angry email to the councillors and another to Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri in which she said that mayor Hubert Saliba, who also works in Camilleri’s secretariat, had allegedly told the occupational therapist that permission to use the room would be withdrawn unless he got a personal discount for his child’s therapy.
Saliba has denied “such allegations”, insisting that he had asked for a discount for all residents of Xewkija. Yet in a council meeting last September, the therapist, Josette Sammut, maintained that the mayor had indeed asked for a personal discount (the conversation was reportedly overhead by her husband), and fellow councillor Jeanelle Attard also separately stated that Saliba had admitted to asking for a personal discount in ‘a momentary lapse of clarity’.
If proven, Saliba’s conduct may amount to a criminal offence punishable by possible imprisonment, but Minister Camilleri and the Labour Party (PL) have adopted a hands-off approach.
When The Shift asked Camilleri why he hadn’t referred the case to the police upon receiving the email, and whether he would be asking him to resign from his secretariat, a spokesperson for Camilleri said: “Such allegations should be duly referred to the established structures within the local councils’ division”.
The Shift also contacted Mario Fava, president of the PL’s Councillors’ Section, who said that after speaking to Saliba he was “morally convinced that Hubert Saliba did not ask for a personal discount, but if anyone has any evidence that he did so, he should go to the police”.
The Shift’s inquiry has also found that six days after the email on Saliba’s alleged wrongdoing, the council’s secretary, Marion Attard, wrote to the Department of Local Government to ask whether the council could “provide” the room temporarily to the NGO for use by the occupational therapist.
Asked why she had consulted the department after six weeks had already passed since the council’s approval of the use of the room, Attard answered that it was then that preparations by the therapist began, adding that the council’s vote was not “legal and valid” because it hadn’t been passed “in a motion”.
The department replied on two occasions that the council had to have a bylaw in place to allow the use of the room by someone offering a paid service, and in any case, the council would have to “hire the hall”.
Sources familiar with the running of local councils said that although the Xewkija council’s accommodation of the NGO and therapist is unusual, it’s a charitable or social case to enable the NGO to convince the therapist to hold sessions in Gozo at rates similar to those in Malta, thus sparing parents having to take their children to Malta every week.
Yet after the department’s second email, Attard contacted the council’s lawyer, who requested the NGO to vacate the room and return the key by 12 October.
The council took exception, approving a motion on 7 October, in which the mayor abstained, disapproving of Attard’s instructions to the lawyer without the council’s awareness or consent.
A second motion passed unanimously also authorised the NGO to stay put, only to then have the council’s lawyer write to the NGO nine days later requesting immediate eviction after consulting with the mayor and secretary.
The Shift asked Saliba whether he would be taking responsibility for the turn of events that led to the autistic children’s eviction, especially in light of the allegations of wrongdoing that dominated the last two council meetings. He refused to reply.