The newly elected PN mayor of Sliema Tony Chircop, was one of the major surprises during the last round of local council elections. Chircop, relatively unknown in political circles, was the surprise package in the much discussed Sliema local council election after gaining 689 first count votes which propelled him to the town's mayorship.
Asked to explain what will distinguish the new council from the previous administration, Chircop says "openness, unity, honesty and integrity".
Chircop has spent most of his life in tourism and currently owns and runs a small travel agency which mainly deals with incoming group and conference tourism. Chircop's family also owns the Kennedy Nova Hotel in Sliema, however he explains that he is no longer involved in the management of the hotel since it has been leased out. This, he explains, has given him the time needed to "contribute to the locality of my birth.
"This was the chance to put my name forward. In all honesty, I was not asked to contest and I put my name forward because I believed that I could make a contribution especially following the disastrous councils in Sliema during the past years. I felt that things could not go on as they were and I felt that if nobody is prepared to put their name forward, the difficulties will remain and the residents' concerns will remain unresolved," Chircop says.
Apart from running his travel agency, Chircop is also the government's permanent representative on the World Tourism Organisation. The organisation, which is a UN agency, promotes responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, especially in developing countries. Chircop says that at the moment Malta gives more than it receives from the organisation as it "shares its experience and know-how in the industry". However, he says that Malta benefits from the reports and studies published by the organisation.
Chircop was also the president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) between 2001 and 2002 and was the longest serving council member after serving for over 23 years. After his stint as MHRA president, Chircop was appointed as chairman of the Malta Tourism Authority marketing and promotion directorate.
Asked to describe his political activity, Chircop says "This is my very first experience in politics. However, I have always been a firm believer in local councils because they have diminished the total dependence on ministers and MPs. The creation of local councils brought the residents closer to their localities.
"Speaking as an outsider, councils have not been a complete success story but they did serve a purpose. Unfortunately, politics in Malta have always been very centralised. Ideally, councils should not be politicised as they are and if that was the case, local councils would be a greater success as more people would come forward."
He adds that the highly politicised councils might have scared off persons "with no ulterior motive, from participating in elections." He admits that at times councils have been used as a stepping stone to Parliament, but bluntly says "I publicly declare that I have no intention of contesting general elections."
Asked about his affiliation with the Nationalist Party, Chircop says that he contested on the PN ticket because it is hard to be elected as an independent. Chircop adds that he has always been a Nationalist Party supporter but his political activity never went beyond being an ordinary party member.
"I would not say that my lack of political experience was an advantage however I met a number of old and new acquaintances and explained what I would like to do if elected. My message was that I am contesting because I have the necessary time on my hands to give a contribution. In fact as soon as I take my oath I will establish regular hours of attendance to enable residents to meet me at the council.
"This lack of experience became evident during the run-up to the election because other candidates would boast of their long years of activism. I have only been active in politics as an outsider however the message which I tried to get through was that my only interest is the well-being of the locality and the residents.
"Sliema belongs to the residents and all councillors from the three parties represented on the council are Sliema residents. Therefore all councillors are duty-bound to respect and serve the residents".
"I would not like to involve too much politics. Although everybody is entitled to his or her opinion, let's leave it at that. Under my charge, Sliema's best interest will be at the forefront of the council's work.
"The desire to be of service to Sliema is what made me contest," Chircop stresses. When speaking about Sliema, Chircop talks with contagious enthusiasm that gives away his love for his hometown.
Chircop recounts that he was born and bred in Sliema and says that he has lived practically all his life in the seaside town. "I have a very strong tie with the place. I have seen Sliema go through drastic changes and I have seen the customs change. When I was a child we would play football in the streets however today's children cannot do the same because Sliema is infested with cars. Thus we have to provide for them to by upgrading the recreational spaces and facilities in Sliema."
Although he has not yet had the opportunity to meet his fellow councillors, Chircop said that he has called all elected councillors to congratulate them and explain his vision for the new council.
Last month, the Sliema local council had to be dissolved one year before its legal term came to an end after a series of resignations, criminal investigations and infighting had plagued the council. The newly elected council will only serve a one-year term as another election will be held in 2013.
This leaves little time for the new council to leave its mark however Chircop has set four targets which he hopes will restore faith in the Sliema council. "Our four priorities are the reinstatement of the circular bus service, the enforcement of rules at construction sites, a good clean-up of the whole town and the trial of a new traffic plan."
The previous administration came under fire for the lax enforcement on building contractors who turned Sliema into a permanent building site. Many Sliema residents have complained of broken pavements, pollution and a total disrespect for their right to rest on Sundays and public holidays by contractors.
Chircop says that one of his priorities as mayor will be to enforce construction rules and regulations and make sure that any kind of development is carried within the legal framework.
He says inter-party agreement exists on the council about this and added "I am certain I will receive the backing of all other councillors who all happen to be Sliema residents. We will firstly ask contractors to understand what is required of them and if they are stubborn and do not change their ways we will enforce the law.
"We have to get a proper system in place to reduce inconveniences caused by development. We have to address the issues related to construction such as incomplete and abandoned construction sites to restore law and order in Sliema."
Chircop stresses that he is not against development and is aware that it will never end. However, he says that "an inconvenience remains an inconvenience" and added that contractors "are welcome" as long as they respect their legal obligations and the residents' rights to rest and live in a clean environment.
On the circular bus service which was paid for and run by the local council, Chircop explains that the previous administration had stopped the service on the introduction of the new public transport system last year, because the council had been reassured that the new system will cover the routes which the council's bus serviced. However, this failed to materialise and Chircop said that the new council is in the process of negotiating with all stakeholders and "a new service will be in place before the beginning of summer".
On the cleaning up exercise, Chircop said that he would like to involve residents, associations and organisations based in Sliema to participate in a thorough clean-up campaign which would empower the residents and drive the message through that everybody was responsible for the general upkeep of the town.
Another priority for Chircop is a trial run of a new traffic system which would put to the test ways and means to change the traffic flow and ease the parking situation in Sliema. Chircop says this is the hardest of the four priorities he has set out, but said that the council can pave the way for a new traffic system which can be adopted by the next council.
On the new administration and his task to restore public confidence in the beleaguered council, Chircop says: "All I ask for is a little patience from the residents. I ask them to give us some time to get started and I am confident that we will make it because everybody at the council is enthusiastic and raring to go. All I can promise is honesty, hard work and after taking stock of the situation we can send out the right vibes and start delivering."
He says that the infighting and squabbling which plagued the previous administration demotivated the council's staff and added that "if the councillors lead by example the staff will follow suit".
Asked whether he expected to be elected as mayor in the run-up, he said "Far from it. I told my family and friends that I would be happy to perform well in the election in order to give a contribution of some kind. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised and if I was elected as a councillor I would have been just as happy".
On the resignation of Julian Galea who was elected on the PN ticket but resigned before taking the oath of office, Chircop said that he has not been notified about the manner in which the vacant seat will be filled. However he hopes for a "quick resolution as the longer it takes it becomes unfair on the candidates and it also creates anxiety.
"Without going into the merit of this particular case I have made it very clear that I will not tolerate that kind of talk in my term. We must all respect each other. If anything similar happens in the future, I will not accept it and the person, whoever it is, will be sanctioned."
For years, the Sliema local council has been a battlefield for the PN 10th district heavyweights such as George Pullicino and Robert Arrigo who field candidates from their stable to take control of the Sliema council. Asked to comment about this, Chircop says: "As for past councils, this could well be the case. However, this time around, there is a very good feeling within the Nationalist camp and I will certainly not let any pique get in the way. I will try and use my acquired diplomacy skills, to avoid such a thing."
However, Chircop says that it will be very difficult to overcome such a problem especially since the one-year term will coincide with general elections. "When things start getting hot, things will change. Sometimes, you cannot really do anything as you cannot stop certain things from happening."
Not wanting to sound too pessimistic, Chircop adds: "There will be pressure on us. I can see it coming. If not from above it will come from below. However, I have promised to lead with honesty and I expect all councillors to be men and women enough to surmount such pressures."
Asked how he intends to make the council more accessible to the residents, Chircop said that the council's staff will undergo training in public relations and customer care. Chircop also explains that he would like to make us of his experience in the hotel industry and make sure that "residents are given an answer to their query or complaint on the same day when possible. In other cases which go beyond the council's responsibilities, our staff must guide and help the residents in order to resolve their issues".
He also plans to send a letter to all residents inviting them to contribute and participate in the council's structures. "I will send an open invitation to all residents who have the time and will to give their contribution to come forward. The same applies to the unelected candidates who already showed their willingness to serve."
Asked whether he will be recontesting in a year's time, Chircop says that "it is still premature to decide, however if I feel that I have given a valuable contribution, my services are appreciated and we achieve what we are out to achieve, that is regain the residents' respect, than I will probably stand again".