By Bejay Browne
For the past 20 years Paphos has been run by a handful of corrupt lawyers, developers and politicians, the mayor of Paphos has told the Sunday Mail.
“There has been a lot of development in Paphos over the last 20 years, but only for this group’s benefit; I see them as a group of criminals,” Phedonas Phedonos said in an interview this week.
He said the recent uncovering of a series of scandals involving millions of euros meant that the ‘abscess’ of corruption had been burst, but warned that he is currently investigating a further possible case though he could not yet reveal more details.
“As with other instances, I am investigating, and will then hand the information over to the police. The new case could involve a substantial amount of money and was carried out under the previous administration of [Paphos mayor] Savvas Vergas. I can’t say what it is at this time,” he said.
He reassured Paphos residents that though recent events may make it appear that Paphos led the way in corrupt practices, corruption had thrived in other towns for many years as well. It was just that it broke in Paphos first.
“We are really happy that we contributed to fighting corruption. In a small society like ours, it may be easy to hide fraud under the carpet, but it is also easy for it to be revealed. I hope the same will be done in the rest of Cyprus as well,” he said.
The mayor was speaking at the end of a week which saw a second major scandal break in Paphos leading to six arrests for alleged over-charging by the operators of the Marathounda waste disposal facility, run by a company called Helector.
The six are suspected of reporting higher waste volumes consequentially resulting in higher charges for local authorities and consumers. They face charges of embezzlement, squandering public moneys, corruption and bribery.
Shortly after becoming mayor in January 2015, Phedonos spearheaded the Paphos municipality’s decision to stop paying its dues to Helector last April. It had realised the prices they were called to pay ranged from €28 to €31 per tonne of waste whereas the real cost did not exceed €10 per tonne.
The alleged offences took place between 2008 and 2015.
Among the six arrested is former mayor, disgraced Savvas Vergas, who is already serving a six year prison term for the Paphos sewerage board scandal in which he and other municipal councillors were found guilty of receiving kickbacks.
The mayor said that, as in the case of the sewerage board case, if Helector is found guilty, the municipalities will be paid back any over payments.
“We will assert all legal claims, which will certainly be to the benefit of our residents,” he said.
Phedonos conceded that the ‘wounds’ left by having a previous corrupt mayor and officials were deep, but said he was sure Paphos could look towards the future with confidence.
He pointed to the eight infrastructure projects already underway and the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors expected as Paphos takes over as European Capital of Culture in 2017 as examples of what residents could look forward to.
Underlying it all is Phedonos’ vision that the municipality can become a model of good governance based on transparency, fairness and effectiveness.
“If we want to restart our economy and society after the economic, moral and spiritual crisis we have gone through, it’s very important to clean the town from corruption,” he said. “If you don’t have this, you can’t have real economic development.”
The mayor revealed that he had been put under psychological pressure and on occasion threatened to stop investigating the waste disposal contract.
Earlier this week Phedonos described how in November last year, he received a letter from Helector threatening to sue him for libel after he spoke to the media about the contracts.
And in October the mayor received a letter demanding that unless Paphos municipality made its overdue payments (some €185,000), the site would stop servicing the municipality by denying access to municipality rubbish trucks.
“To those who are making these threats, I can say that they are clearly wasting their time,” he told the Sunday Mail.
Phedonos’ defiance and determination to fight corruption has led to comparisons with Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides who has become a constant thorn in the sides of various ministries and municipalities as he uncovers alleged irregularities.
The mayor insists he is no hero, just a man who loves his home town, respects its residents and has a sense of responsibility to do his job. He said his only ambition is to try and work for a better and a fairer society.
“The town must have not just a mayor they trust. They must also be able to trust the municipality. It’s very important for people to trust the whole institution, the officers and the workers,” he said.
“Today I’m a mayor, maybe tomorrow I’m not any longer, so it’s important to have a clean organisation without corruption. This is a legacy I want to leave.”
The mayor stressed that Paphos was not a city of scandals and corrupted politicians, but a place that has proved it can achieve huge goals.
“As well as the cultural capital, Paphos is a popular tourist destination, with a past, present and future. It’s also a place that has learnt from its mistakes and should be proud of its achievements,” he said.