Getting to bottom of town council saga

It is obvious that the Auditor-General's Office has taken pains with both the audit of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and its carefully-worded 59-page report. Given the ready assumptions of cynics that the ruling party is out to discredit the opposition-run council, it was important to get to the facts of the long-running issues. This was an exercise the Auditor-General was legally bound to conduct as public funds were involved. Indeed, if the Government had deemed it impolitic to probe the Workers' Party's (WP's) management of the council, that would have been a dereliction of duty, especially after the council's own auditors had declined to give the accounts a clean bill of health for two years running. Such a finding would have caused a legitimate stir among a company's shareholders or stakeholders of a charitable organisation had it applied to them.

Even after giving the AHPETC the benefit of the doubt - for inexperience, mistakes and IT system limitations - one is left with disturbing questions after perusing the audit report. These must be answered fully, as WP leaders have said they would when the report is debated in Parliament this week. For example, there are some glaring numbers that are mystifying, such as how the council went from an operating surplus of $3.3 million in 2010 to an operating deficit of $734,000 by 2012, after it took charge. Just how did this happen? And what would it portend if this trend continued unchecked?

Equally troubling is the A-G's account of the web of relationships that created conflicts of interest in the way the council was managing transactions, with a husband and wife at the helm and senior managers who are also owners of companies awarded contracts by the council. The picture painted was not of small sums, as the related-party contracts flagged by the A-G amounted to $25.9 million, and with some fees paid being nearly a third higher than previously charged. Similarly, questions will be raised about why the party failed to set aside millions into its sinking fund for essential maintenance, as was required under the law.

Citizens expect that essential services and the proper management of funds will not be subject to the vagaries of politics. They will also want answers to the questions raised by the A-G's report, which concluded that it could offer no assurances that the town council's financial statements are accurate and reliable and that public funds had been well spent and accounted for. While the Auditor-General stopped short of alleging any criminal wrong-doing, the Workers' Party has a duty to look into the concerns raised by the A-G's audit so that its residents are given the assurances they deserve.