The National Environment Agency (NEA) yesterday accused the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and its vice-chairman Pritam Singh of making "misleading and inaccurate" statements, as the war of words over the cleaning of hawker centres was taken up a notch.
The NEA also released a letter from a hawkers' association to show that hawkers had been told by a town council staff member that they would have to pay extra to clean the higher parts of their food centres, contrary to the council's previous claims that no such statement was made.
The NEA responded after Mr Singh, a Workers' Party MP for Aljunied GRC, put out a media release on behalf of the town council, saying it had "duly carried out its responsibilities as required" in the cleaning of hawker centres.
He also said there was no need for the NEA to have sent the town council a formal notice on Friday reminding it of its legal obligations.
The dispute follows a report in The Sunday Times last week about a row between several hawkers and the town council.
Stallholders from two food centres in Bedok had said they were told by the town council that they would have to pay extra for scaffolding to be erected for scheduled clean-ups, whereas they never had to pay in the past.
Hawkers from Block 538 Bedok North Street 3 Food Centre complained that its ceiling was not washed when it closed for a spring cleaning in early March.
The town council subsequently sent a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page saying it could not clean the ceiling because there was no scaffolding, which it had been told would be provided by the hawkers' association.
Yesterday, Mr Singh said that the town council cleaned the high areas of hawker centres last year and so had fulfilled its duties.
He also noted that NEA's notice on Friday had stipulated that the cleaning of high areas needed to be done annually, and not every quarter.
Mr Singh reiterated that "no authorised town council staff told any hawker or anyone of any additional charges to be imposed for the cleaning".
Within hours, the NEA issued its statement refuting his claims.
It said that the high areas at Block 538 were not cleaned because the town council wanted the hawkers' association to separately pay the council's contractor, ATL Maintenance, for putting up scaffolding.
The hawkers refused, and referred ATL to the town council on Feb 19, less than two weeks before the spring cleaning was scheduled to begin on March 4.
"Despite this being acknowledged by the town council at that point, the scaffolding was not put up on the day of the spring cleaning," said the NEA.
"Mr Singh now says that, since the cleaning of high areas only needed to be done once a year, it did not plan to do so in March because such cleaning was already done last year. However, our record shows the town council also did not provide scaffolding for this centre's cleaning last year."
The NEA also released a letter dated May 8, written by the association representing stallholders at Block 511 Kaki Bukit Market and Food Centre. Addressed to the area's MP, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, it said that stallholders were told by a Mr Tai from the town council that they would have to pay for cleaning of areas above 2.5m.
The NEA identified the man they referred to as Mr Tai Vie Shun, the town council's property manager.
Said NEA: "The sequence of events and documents clearly show that the AHPETC's claim that 'no authorised town council staff told any hawker or anyone of any additional charges to be imposed for the cleaning' is false."
The town council had also taken issue with NEA's notice on Friday, reminding it of its legal obligations. Mr Singh said it had wanted to meet the NEA on Friday but the agency rescheduled the meeting to June 6.
The NEA said yesterday it did not want to meet on May 31 as originally proposed by AHPETC because the council wanted to exclude hawkers from the meeting.
"NEA strongly advises AHPETC not to compromise public hygiene and safety," it added.
Last night, The Sunday Times learnt that market representatives of the Block 511 and Block 538 centres are preparing to petition against the charging of scaffolding fees for the spring cleaning of the centres by the town council.
They started collecting signatures from hawkers on Friday night and have about 70 signatures so far.
Additional reporting by Joyce Lim