They signed up for the same scuba diving class, they went on a sight-seeing tour to China, they had barbecue parties and they applied for stock shares together - you might think they are members of a company or an association, but they aren't, they are members of the Urban Council. Apart from these non-council activities, they also enjoy enviable council-generated privileges - a box is reserved for members' use at the Hong Kong Stadium throughout the year and rows of empty seats are always made available to councillors at the City Hall, the Cultural Centre and other Urbco theatres and town halls. With these benefits and the apparent cordiality among members from different political affiliations since the new term started last April, it's not surprising that suspicions are being voiced that the council is not doing any real business - it is just a private club enjoyed by a privileged few. Accusing fingers have been pointed at the council chairman, Dr Ronald Leung Ding-bong, for failing to run the council properly. Eyebrows were raised when he bought sports shoes for members and organised Urbco boat trips. So is it fair, with these handful of examples, to say that the Urban Council is a place of leisure and fun which fails to discharge its statutory functions of serving the community? Some councillors disagree, even though they concede that problems exist in the conduct of council meetings and in members' attitudes towards their duties and rights. But, no, for its 41 members, the Urban Council is not an exclusive fun club. Urban Councillor and Democratic Party member, Fred Li Wah-ming, agrees with Dr Leung's explanation - that all the chairman had organised, the boat trips, the banquets and the barbecue parties, was meant to promote good ties among members from different political factions. 'The number of friendship-building activities held so far this year is already more than the total organised in the last four years,' said Mr Li. 'In the past, there wasn't any need for these activities to be held so frequently.' According to the democrat, Dr Leung had good reason to promote these informal get-togethers this term. In the old days, when the council was not fully elected, said Mr Li, the municipal body was basically divided into three groups - appointed members, directly-elected members and those elected from among the district board members. 'Each group had its own leaders and it was easier then to resort to consultation among the three groups to reach a consensus on much of the council's business. The success rate was almost 90 per cent,' said Mr Li, who also sat on the council during the last term. But last year's elections, which turned the council into a fully-elected body, changed the scene. The council is now grouped more in accordance with political affiliations, including members of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, as well as a dozen or so independents. Mr Li claimed that the Democratic Party, having only 12 votes in the 41-member council, was being isolated by other groups. Co-ordination with them was simply impossible; hardly anyone was interested in teaming up to pursue matters within the council. Frustrated Democratic Party members therefore tried to look for other channels to express their views. So since the new term started last year, there have been more oral questions and motion debates in the council meetings, mainly initiated by the democrats. As a result, Urbco's monthly meetings, which in the old days only lasted for about an hour, have become much longer than many other members would prefer, said Mr Li. 'This has made the members very unhappy. Under such circumstances, Dr Leung has tried to promote ties among members by hosting more banquets for councillors in the hope that the friction among the different factions could be reduced.' Mr Li said that even though the activities might not be so popular, there was usually a good turnout, with members from each of the four factions participating. Independent councillor, Ada Wong Ying-kay, also believes that it is too subjective to characterise the council as a private club just because members engaged in some non-council activities together. It's true that members have formed a soccer team, spent time practising and then took part in matches with others such as teams formed by Regional Councillors or Legislative Councillors. And it's also true that some members have enrolled in a scuba diving class, paid for out of their own pockets. But before forming any judgment, Ms Wong said people should ask whether members should engage in these friendship-building activities and whether they should become friends. To Ms Wong, it's unfair to condemn the whole council without looking at the motive behind these activities. 'It's a fact that Urban Councillors are more friendly to each other than is the case among Legco members,' she added. Both Ms Wong and Mr Li believe that the Urban Council's problem lies elsewhere - in the lack of effort among members to address the council's business properly and discharge their duties. Some members feel their colleagues are just not serious enough about their job. There isn't proper follow-up work on important policy areas nor is there any long-term planning for the council's work. Members rely heavily on staff from the Urban Services Department to supply views and information and there's a lack of initiative by members to produce their own policy papers. While there are standing orders, they are not properly enforced. At formal council meetings, members chat while speeches are made. In extreme cases, members talk on their mobile phones while the meetings are underway. Complaints have been put to the chairman, but the councillors concerned have yet to kick the habit. Some members say the fact that neither the public nor the media monitor their performance is largely to blame. Arguments between the political factions sometimes continue, even after the chairman has asked for silence. The meetings aside, other council-related business does not seem to be carried out in accordance with the rules. Free tickets to a wide range of cultural and recreational activities allowed members to see what the council was providing for the public, said Ms Wong. But obviously, abuses did exist and some action needed to be taken to address them, she said. According to Mr Li, these included members asking for tickets for shows and programmes but failing to turn up, or giving tickets to friends and relatives. 'These free tickets are not privileges for members. Anyone who fails to turn up after being given tickets is just abusing their public duty,' said Mr Li. 'If nobody cares, the problem will just get worse.' Councillors did not want these matters to be brought out in the open, said Mr Li; they would rather they were settled internally. But he believes the present culture of the council has to change. 'The age of no transparency and no accountability at the Urban Council has gone.'