Tirana Municipality Denies Existence of Law on Public Consultation Director of Urbanism Joni Baboçi at a public meeting. Source: Facebook/Erion Veliaj

During the media black-out between Christmas and New Year, the Municipal Council of Tirana passed the much discussed new general local plan of the capital, also known as the Tirana 2030 Masterplan. The final approval of this initiative of the municipality in the context of the territorial reform has happened in violation of the Law on Public Consultation, which is published on the transparency website of the municipality, the Law on Planning and Development of the Territory, and the Aarhus Convention, which has been ratified by Albania in 2001.

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When I confronted Director of Urbanism Joni Baboçi with the illegality of the procedures followed by the Municipality of Tirana, he responded that “there is no law for public hearings” and that all “duties and procedures have been accurately followed”:

There is no law for public hearings. There is a law for the planning of the territory, which stipulates how many, when, and where public hearings are organized for the drafting of general local plan. These duties and procedures have been accurately followed by the municipality and this has been certified by state organs that are entitled to do so.

Drafts of his plan have not only been continually formally published during this year, but even informally through social media, Google docs, etc.

As regarding public hearings I hope that you and many others in 2017 will use it as the law stipulates, as a means of improving the work of the public administration, and not as continuous justification, which has now become annoying, for the lack of minimal engagement and the most effortless method to play opposition. Happy new year.

I hope it may be clear for the many people that follow my writings on public space in Tirana, as well as the cultural projects that I have devoted to the issue, I am not interested in “playing opposition.” What I am interested in is holding the municipality accountable for a plan – independent of its actual contents – that will have an enormous influence on the urban reality of Tirana in the coming decades.

Let me therefore take the liberty to instruct our youthful friend Baboçi, who is a civil servant paid by Albanian tax money and who therefore can and should be accused for abuse of office if he willingly acts in violation of the law, in part of the legal framework that he seems to be so ignorant about.

Law on Public Consultation

Contrary to what the Director of Urbanism of the Municipality of Tirana claims, Albania has a perfectly fine law on public hearings. It is called the Law on Public Consultation and was passed in 2014 by the Rama government. The objective of this law is very clear, namely to “regulate the process of notification and public consultation regarding draft laws and drafts of national strategic national and local documents, as well as policies with a high public interest.” The new general local plan of the Municipality of Tirana, which formulates a vision until the year 2030, definitely appears to fall into the category of documents the law speaks about.

According to Art. 6, “public organs are obliged to take all possible measures to create the possibility for the participation of the public and all interested parties in the process of notification and public consultation,” which include a publication in the electronic register of the draft documents, the timely notification for the consultation, as well as when and where it will be held. They are also obliged to publish all pertinent documents in their respective transparency websites.

Baboçi claims that “drafts of his plan have been […] continually formally published during this year.” This may be true, but only for the first and second phase of the drafting process. These documents contained very little concrete information on the actual plans of the municipality, and, moreover, were of a rather weak quality. The third and final phase documents, hastily presented last week, were only published in the register and the transparency website after the public hearing had been held.

As regards the deadlines for these procedures, Articles 15 and 17 stipulate that at least twenty working days are required after the notification to allow the public and interested parties to send in their comments, and for “especially complex or important” documents, it stipulates forty days.

In this particular case, the public was never officially notified. In fact, it was only informed thanks to an email published by an opposition member of the municipal council, date-marked December 22 – four days before the actual hearing. Moreover, the email erroneously (and in violation of Art. 13) mentioned the location of the National Historical Museum. When I arrived there at 11:00, I was welcomed by an event of the National Police, while I only later heard that the event had been held in Hotel Plaza, and that media had been refused entrance.

Let me stress that Art. 8 clearly defines “interested parties” as public organs (such as the Municipal Council), citizens of the Republic of Albania and interest groups, and even foreign citizens with permanent residence in Albania, such as myself. Banning the media from a hearing that is announced as public is therefore an illegal act, and ought to be prosecuted as a criminal act.

I do not see how my reference to the Law on Public Consultation is “the most effortless method to play opposition” or shows my “lack of engagement.” I think that if the government violates the law by not allowing me to read, with interest and commitment, the documents that are supposed to shape the city I live in, and then makes it impossible for me to actively participate in the most important public hearing, it is rather cynical to accuse me of “lack of engagement.”

Law on Planning and Development of the Territory

The Director of Urbanism of the Municipality of Tirana claims that it has “accurately followed” the “duties and procedures” stipulated in the Law on Planning and Development of the Territory, approved in 2014 by the Rama government. This is again incorrect.

Art. 24(2) of this law states clearly that “the responsible planning authority notifies the public and interested parties regarding the place, date, and hour of any public meeting and puts the planning project and documentation in their disposition at least 30 days before the public meeting.” Considering the facts that I described above, the Municipality has violated the Law on Planning and Development of the Territory, and any “state organ” that has certified they did not is committing abuse of office.

Moreover, Art. 24(1) stipulates that such a meeting needs to be repeated in case it is necessary to “fully inform” the interested parties or “solve” any conflict that has arisen regarding the plan. In absence of consensus from the opposition during the public hearing of December 26, and owing to the absence of the full documentation of the plan under discussion, such a repetition of the public hearing seems to be a legal obligation. However, the Municipal Council, with only a bit more than ten hours after all documents were made publicly available to evaluate dozens of maps and a 460-page document, passed the plan with majority votes.

Aarhus Convention

That the Tirana 2030 Masterplan will have a strong impact on the environment is something that would be difficult to deny. Independent of whether this impact will be positive or negative, the Aarhus Convention the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which was ratified by the Albanian State in 2001, is very clear about the legal framework in which consultations about any plan impacting the environment should be held.

The “Three Pillars” of the Aarhus Convention are as follows

  1. Access to information: any citizen should have the right to get a wide and easy access to environmental information. Public authorities must provide all the information required and collect and disseminate them and in a timely and transparent manner.
  2. Public participation in decision making: the public must be informed over all the relevant projects and it has to have the chance to participate during the decision-making and legislative process. Decision makers can take advantage from people’s knowledge and expertise; this contribution is a strong opportunity to improve the quality of the environmental decisions, outcomes and to guarantee procedural legitimacy.
  3. Access to justice: the public has the right to judicial or administrative recourse procedures in case a Party violates or fails to adhere to environmental law and the convention’s principles

Although the Law on Public Consultation, and, to lesser extent, the Law on Planning and Development of the Territory conform to the principles of the Aarhus Convention, it is clear that the Municipality of Tirana does not.

Nevertheless, Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, thought it necessary to post a Facebook photo album full of propaganda images with the message “There has been any meeting for the urban plan??? Here are the proofs! But let’s now go forward with work and not with chatter.” No one ever denied that the municipality held hearings. The issue is about holding those hearings in a context where all the interested parties dispose of the same information and are given the time to inspect that information in order to form an opinion about it. The legal framework I referred to above exists in order to guarantee this information equality between state and citizen.

The ignorance of the legal framework that exists to guarantee the future wellbeing of all citizens of Tirana – not just those in power – as displayed by a high official of the municipality in charge of public planning is not so surprising, but it definitely shows a sad “lack of engagement” of those who would like to keep the moral high ground at all cost.