The town council run by the Workers' Party (WP) has been found guilty of breaking the law by holding a Chinese New Year event this year without a permit.
District Judge Victor Yeo, in delivering his judgment yesterday, said the event from Jan 9 to Jan 30 at Hougang Central was a "temporary fair" and thus required a permit under the Environmental Public Health Act (EPHA).
Judge Yeo said it fits the dictionary definition of a "fair": a gathering of buyers and sellers at a particular place and time. He noted the law makes no reference to the purpose or type of fair, its size, scale, location or duration.
He will pass sentence on the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) on Dec 24. It can be fined up to $1,000.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) had, before the trial, offered the town council a composition fine but it was rejected.
Over 2½ days of hearings last month, AHPETC argued that the fair, with five stalls selling items like cookies between blocks 811 and 814, was a "community event" or a "mini-fair" to bring festive cheer.
Therefore, it disputed NEA's argument that it was a "temporary fair" that required a permit.
Yesterday, the judge said he found it "exceedingly puzzling" that AHPETC did not once raise its objections with the NEA over the requirement of a permit.
Instead, it submitted an application form, replacing the words "trade fair" with "event" and did not attach all the necessary supporting documents.
While it sought approval for fire safety, its application form did not include a letter of support from the area's Citizens' Consultative Committee, which is chaired by a People's Action Party grassroots leader.
AHPETC chairman Sylvia Lim had previously testified that this condition was "unreasonable".
Judge Yeo, noting Ms Lim's testimony that AHPETC would have submitted the form in full if it were suitable, said: "The true objection in my view appeared to be the conditions stated in the application form, and not that a permit was required per se."
He added: "To now vigorously mount a challenge that there was no requirement for the town council to apply for a permit is simply unconvincing to say the least, or a mere afterthought at worse."
AHPETC had cited Section 18 of the Town Councils Act to claim that a permit was not needed as the event was held in a common area under their charge.
Section 18 says a town council is to "control, manage, maintain and improve the common property of residential and commercial property in the housing estates".
But Judge Yeo found the argument "wholly misconceived and untenable". He said the Act does not impinge on the EPHA, which deals with "wider environmental and public health concerns which affect the public at large", such as pest infestation and noise nuisance, he added.
He agreed with the prosecution that the Town Councils Act does not "give (a town council) carte blanche to do whatever it chooses within its precinct without any regard to the requirements of the prevailing laws and regulations".
AHPETC's vice-chairmen Pritam Singh and Png Eng Huat said: "We are disappointed with the verdict but we will consult our lawyers on our legal options and do not rule anything out."
NEA said last night operators of temporary fairs need a licence to address public health concerns. It took action against 16 unlicensed fair operators between 2011 and Oct 31 this year.
These fairs were in Tampines, Toa Payoh, Simei, Clementi, Kovan City, Bukit Merah, Kampong Glam, Chinatown, Serangoon North, Rivervale Walk and Tanglin Halt.
This article was first published on Nov 29, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.