【明報專訊】WHILE the allocation of more government resources to district councils for the promotion of their work is in itself a good thing and deserves every support, it may not be so good a thing if the councils and their members do not make proper use of the resources.
District councils are provided with funds every year for their community involvement projects, the amount for 2015-16 being more than $350 million. The projects aim at encouraging citizen participation in community affairs, and the funds are open to application from district organisations for activities that range from cultural and recreational activities, civic education, and fire and crime prevention to one-day tours, and afternoon teas. While the Home Affairs Department gives the councils general guidelines for funding approvals and for monitoring the use of the funds, the councils are left to monitor themselves and have the final say in approving funding applications.
After studying the councils' records, our reporters found that, during the summer holidays in July and August this year, activities sponsored by the 18 district councils under the community involvement project fell mainly into two categories, the largest category being "Cantonese opera shows, carnivals, and sports classes", and the second largest category being "one-day tours, tea gatherings, dinners, and birthday parties". While such activities may or may not help with district administration, they may be used by some to promote their own election prospects, especially as the district council elections are soon to be held in November. After all, the activities, such as one-day tours, are mainly held by mutual aid committees sponsored by the councils, and if those aspiring to stand for council seats are responsible for the activities, they are in effect using public money to fund their election efforts, which is definitely not in order.
As far as we know, there are no effective auditing and monitoring mechanisms for the councils in their processing of funding applications. Every council has a list of "designated district organisations", most of which have the council's members as their members or even leaders. When these organisations apply to their respective councils for funding, conflicts of interests are bound to arise. While all the councils require their members to declare their interests, the members concerned are not required to withdraw when funding applications in which they have an interest are discussed, though some of the councils do not allow them to take part in discussions or votes related to those applications. As there are no objective criteria for the approval of funding applications, the council members tend to share among themselves through some established procedures the community involvement resources. The relationship between the council members and the organisations applying for funding is never seriously looked into, and there is no way to find out whether or not the funds go to benefit the members themselves. This can lead to corruption.
If things continue in this way, the operation of the councils may be further distorted, and district administration may be adversely affected. To prevent corruption, the government should step in to make sure that public resources at the district level are fairly distributed. At the very least, the government should introduce clearly worded regulations requiring council members with conflicts of interests to withdraw from meetings when the funding applications concerned are under examination. Regulations should also be introduced requiring the sponsored organisations to submit reports of the community involvement activities held and statements of the associated revenues and expenses, which must be open to public scrutiny. This will help strengthen public confidence in the councils.