Town council report a spur to do better

When the latest town council management report was released last Thursday, one word - AIM - came to mind immediately.

The acronym for Action Information Management became the byword for a long-running saga between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP), which flared up after the release of the last town council report in December.

The controversy revolved around the sale of town council management systems to the PAP-owned AIM, which the WP pointed to as a reason for its poor showing in the collection of service and conservancy charges (S&CCs).

In May, the row reached fever pitch when the parties exchanged harsh words in Parliament - terms such as "arrogant", "self-righteous" and "mischievous" were among those used.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim charged that the PAP was playing politics through AIM by using it to trip up opposition parties taking over PAP wards, while National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the WP's reading was too sinister. The PAP also put the opposition party on the defensive, by asking it to answer for its town council's dealings with a WP-affiliated company.

An unfortunate outcome of the AIM saga has meant that all such town council reports since then will have political overtones attached to them. It does not help that even before the controversy, because of the generally low grades of opposition-run town councils, there was already the perception among some that the reports were politically motivated.

This is unfortunate, for there is still a relevance for the documents, which assign a grade in five categories to each town council - estate maintenance, estate cleanliness, corporate governance, lift performance and S&CC management. Each town council is assigned a green (best), amber or red (worst) rating.

The reports remain an important tool to spur town councils to keep doing better by their residents. This is evidenced by the 15 town councils having their best showing overall in the most recent report, the fifth since its inception in 2010.

And yes, some residents in Serangoon probably care only about their backyard, and would not be too bothered by how dirty it is in Jurong, or whether the lifts in Tampines are functioning well.

But the reports' open and transparent grading criteria - keeping track of the average number of lift breakdowns for instance - help to make clear which key performance areas town councils are doing less than satisfactorily in, and put the onus on them to perform better next time.

The reports also provide an opportunity for the Ministry of National Development (MND) to point out common weaknesses.

In the latest report, more than half (eight PAP ones and the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council) received amber scores for estate maintenance. Improvements were needed particularly in the obstruction of common areas, the MND said.

These are potential fire hazards and can hamper evacuation efforts during emergencies - a point also highlighted in media reports on blazes that started in HDB common corridors in Toa Payoh and Marsiling earlier this year.

The collection of S&CCs, which provide the bulk of funding for town councils to maintain their estates, is another category that is closely watched.

It is in this area that the WP-run AHPETC seems to be faring consistently poorly in - its arrears management received a "red" band for the second consecutive time in the latest report.

Poor management of arrears will have an impact on town councils' cash flow, and it is in their interest to ensure residents pay these on time. According to the MND's criteria, a "red" grade means that at least 5 per cent of households have S&CCs overdue for three months or more, and the amount of cumulative S&CC overdue for three months or more is at least 50 per cent of the total S&CCs that the town council collects monthly.

AHPETC has acknowledged its shortcomings, and is taking a tougher stance than before with residents. For the first time, its chairman Sylvia Lim revealed that enforcement measures have been stepped up, "including court prosecution where other measures have failed".

She added that they are processing the cases in batches, and "improving the arrears situation is an ongoing process and will take time to effect".

For the second straight year, AHPETC also failed to submit audited financial statements in time to get a grading in the corporate governance category.

AHPETC, formed only recently after Hougang Town Council was expanded following the WP's victories in Aljunied GRC in 2011 and Punggol East in January, can point to the fact that it is relatively young compared to the other town councils.

Understandably, it will need time to learn the ropes and establish operating procedures. But in the interests of residents in these wards, that reasoning must end eventually, and the regular town council reports will provide an impetus for this to happen sooner rather than later.

limze@sph.com.sg

This commentary first appeared on singapolitics.sg

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