A green group has accused civil servants of crossing the lines of political neutrality, saying that in 2008 they actively created public support for or eliminated objections to plans for a man-made beach in Tai Po.
In one instance, officers of the Civil Engineering and Development Department talked 12 pupils at a Kwun Tong secondary school out of opposing the reclamation of Tolo Harbour waters at Lung Mei, along Ting Kok Road.
In another case, the same officers, along with Tai Po district councillors, persuaded two groups of fishermen to withdraw their objections as well.
The Development Bureau said it had collected 23 objections during a 2008 public consultation on the project. Seventeen of the objections came from a group of geography pupils, of which 12 withdrew their petition after the department's senior engineer, Ricky Wong Chi-pan, made repeated visits to the school to meet them, according to the minutes of a meeting of the Tai Po District Council in July 2008.
Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of Green Sense, said opponents of an environmental project would normally be invited to a government office for a meeting, instead of being visited at their school or workplace.
"Such a visit would exert pressure on the school and pupils, and its purpose would be not to hear others' views, but to terminate objections," Tam said.
A bureau spokeswoman confirmed last night that Wong did visit the school on April 21, 2008, but only to "exchange views and clarify" the project with pupils. She also admitted that the officers met the fishermen with the help of a district councillor.
Tam also said an officer from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department asked the district council in January 2008 to create public support for the project.
The officer, Mak Chi-chai, is now vice-president of the Civil Servant General Union, which has publicly backed the beach plan.
A spokesman for the department said its officers were duty-bound to promote the project, as it was a proponent of the artificial beach; therefore, the question of neutrality did not apply.