AHTC ordered to hand over records for Punggol East

The Aljunied Hougang Town Council (AHTC), run by the Workers' Party (WP), has been ordered by the Court of Appeal to hand over all financial documents related to Punggol East constituency to the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) by Nov 4.

Also, its request for PRPTC to sign a blanket non-disclosure agreement was dismissed.

The agreement was aimed at stopping PRPTC from revealing vendor-related information in the documents, among other things.

These decisions follow PRPTC's request for an urgent hearing to the Court of Appeal.

But the apex court imposed limits on PRPTC's use of some of the documents that also contain information about other constituencies still managed by AHTC.

For these "category 2" documents, PRPTC can disclose or use them only to exercise its rights and in the discharge of its duties under the law.

Both town councils have been tussling over the documents since July this year, and had been in court three times over the issue.

The last hearing on Monday was initiated by PRPTC to get from AHTC the documents it is still owed. AHTC, citing confidentiality concerns, had said it would release the remaining "category 2" documents only if PRPTC agreed to a non-disclosure agreement.

In its judgment released yesterday, the three-judge Court of Appeal said it was important to balance the interests of both town councils.

But it added that AHTC had failed to raise any "specific and identifiable" confidentiality concerns it had with particular documents so that action can be taken to mitigate the concerns while giving PRPTC access.

"All that has been done is that the word 'confidential' or its cognate expressions have been added as adjectives to various classes of documents.

"We cannot see how these generic descriptors can suffice to show that AHTC has specific confidentiality concerns in respect of particular documents," said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in issuing the judgment.

He also said that PRPTC is entitled to the documents since it had taken over Punggol East from AHTC, formerly known as Aljunied-Hougang- Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), after the September 2015 General Election. The WP had lost the constituency to the People's Action Party.

Therefore, PRPTC should be allowed to use the documents or disclose its contents as long as it was to further its "legitimate legal interests", said the Chief Justice.

These interests relate to the town council's mandate to administer the common property for the benefit of residents, and manage Punggol East's financial affairs in line with the Town Councils Act, among other things.

At an earlier hearing in August, the court had ordered AHTC to hand over all the "category 1" documents, which relate solely to Punggol East.

This was not done as some of the documents were kept in the same files that also had confidential information about other parts of AHTC.

AHTC vice-chairman Sylvia Lim had said in court on Monday that it would be too onerous to separate the documents physically as the town council was tied up with other audits.

Chief Justice Menon said this was "unsatisfactory". He said AHTC could choose to make copies of all the documents, or allow PRPTC's accountant, PwC, to have access to the originals.

"What it cannot do is cite administrative difficulties in the extraction of the documents as a reason for non-compliance," he added.

This article was first published on Oct 29, 2016.
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