COURT BATTLE OVER WP TOWN COUNCIL'S CNY FAIR BEGINS

BY WALTER SIM, Straits Times

A TRIAL involving the Workers' Party (WP) town council began yesterday, with the National Environment Agency (NEA) lawyers saying it was never given a permit to run a Chinese New Year fair in January.

Still, the Aljunied-Hougang- Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) went ahead with it in Hougang Central, a district court heard.

The event ran from Jan 9 to Jan 30, with five stalls, selling festive decorations, cookies and potted plants, among other things, between blocks 811 and 814.

This, the lawyers argued in their opening remarks, constituted a "temporary fair".

As such, it contravened Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act, which states a permit is necessary for "any temporary fair, stage show or other such function or activity".

But the AHPETC, whose chairman is Ms Sylvia Lim, is disputing NEA's argument. Its lawyer Peter Low pointed out that it was a "mini-fair" or an "event", and hence did not require a permit.

He also said he would seek clarification from the NEA on why it was necessary to get the Citizens Consultative Committee's (CCC) approval when applying for such a permit. The CCC in question was the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol CCC, which Mr Low told the court was chaired by a People's Action Party grassroots leader.

The case before District Judge Victor Yeo started from a letter the town council wrote to the NEA on Dec 20 last year, asking if a permit was required for the Chinese New Year (CNY) event.

The NEA said "yes" three days later, and e-mailed to the town council application forms for a "trade fair permit" and a "trade fair foodstall licence".

On Dec 24, AHPETC replied that the forms were "unsuitable", given that it was organising and operating the event by itself.

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NEA reiterated that a permit was required and the town council submitted the forms. But it struck off the words "trade fair" and substituted them with "event". It also stated the event would be held from Jan 10 to Jan 30 as opposed to Jan 9 when it actually began.

On Jan 9, the NEA told the town council via e-mail that the application was incomplete and could not be processed.

The AHPETC did not respond to the e-mail, nor to a subsequent warning to stop the event.

NEA prosecutor Isaac Tan did not elaborate on the missing documents in the application.

Mr Tai Ji Choong, who is NEA's director of environmental health, told the court that a permit was required for temporary fairs so that "there would not be disamenities caused to the community". These include noise nuisance, pest infestation and food hygiene issues.

During cross-examination, Mr Low wanted Mr Tai to explain why it was necessary to get the CCC's approval as a condition for the permit.

The judge, however, agreed with Mr Tan's objection that the issue surrounding the conditions for a permit should not be argued in the present trial but at a judicial review.

Mr Tan also argued that the matter of not applying for a permit was one of "strict liability". Citing littering as an example, he said whether or not one intended to litter was immaterial.

He also said that since the AHPETC did not appeal against its rejected application, it should not use the court to find out why it was not given the permit.

Mr Low later showed the court a revised trade fair application form dated July 2008, which states "only grassroots organisations, town councils and charitable, civic, educational, religious or social institutions are allowed to hold fairs".

But the forms the AHPETC received last December did not have the words "town councils".

Mr Low asked when and why the change was made. Mr Tan objected, saying it was irrelevant as the issue before the court is whether the event needed a permit.

If found guilty, the town council can be fined up to $1,000 and, for subsequent convictions, a fine not exceeding $4,000 and/or a jail term of up to three months.

The trial continues today.

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Straits Times 15 Oct 2014

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