Accidents and personal safety in Hong Kong

Tree management tendering conditions in Hong Kong up for review amid collusion concerns

Housing Authority panel to take up problem areas after Post findings show two instances of companies in close relationships being awarded

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 11:32pm

The tendering conditions for tree management contracts will undergo review by a Housing Authority committee next month after more conflicts of interest came to light.

Tendering committee chairman Cheung Tat-tong told the Post that the panel’s members would discuss potential problem areas in the existing system during its next meeting in October.

The committee of 12 members deals with tenders valued at more than HK$50 million (US$6.3 million), Cheung said, while tree-related tenders, which are usually worth several million dollars, are handled by the authority.

“But since it attracted media attention and discussions, I think it is necessary for the authority to report to the committee,” he said of the contentious issue.

In response to the Post’s earlier findings of two instances of companies in close relationships being awarded tenders for tree assessment and remedial works, Cheung believed that banning firms whose leaders held close ties to each other was neither fair nor effective.

“Collusion can happen even among people who have no blood ties,” Cheung explained. “On the other hand, different contractors held by family members don’t necessarily collude. The key is if the authority’s regulation and monitoring are effective.”

The key is if the authority’s regulation and monitoring are effective
Cheung Tat-tong, Housing Authority

The two tendering decisions deviated from a condition stating contractors responsible for the two tasks should not come from the same company.

Cheung also questioned why the authority did not appoint a contractor already included on the authority’s approved list.

“By using the list, contractors can be monitored closely, such as through the disclosure of their shareholders and directors ... Also, if a contractor is removed from the list due to poor performance, other government departments will know.”

The Post’s earlier investigation found owners behind City Landscaping Company and CK Garden Company shared the same registered address. Another pair, Muni Arborist and Tins Landscaping, who won contracts together in Kowloon West and Sai Kung, shared the same company secretary. The main individuals behind the two pairs of companies were believed to be couples, according to sources and documents. Tree experts have voiced concern that such situations could undermine the city’s tree management system.

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But the authority told the Post that the directors of the two companies were different and that marital relations were not among the criteria for determining a potential conflict of interest.

It also claimed it had asked a third-party contractor to review the tree assessment results, although this was disputed by frontline arborists.

But in a case involving Indonesian domestic worker Jumiati Supadi, who was killed last month after a 30kg branch fell from a 40-year-old Indian rubber tree at Shun Lee Estate in Sau Mau Ping, no immediate action was taken to treat the tree before the accident despite the third-party assessment.

According to the authority, City Landscaping carried out an annual tree risk assessment for Shun Lee in January, and found the tree in question to be normal. In May, the authority arranged for another contractor to review the trees in the estate, and it identified three, including the rubber tree, that needed further review. In June, City Landscaping assessed the tree and again did not identify problems justifying immediate action. It only proposed that some remedial work be taken in the next two months.

On August 6, the authority asked CK Garden to carry out the works recommended by City Landscaping before August 24. Jumiati was killed on August 21.

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan believed it was inappropriate for owners of tree contractors in the same district to have an immediate family connection, including couples.

“If companies owned by direct family members take the two works in the same region, it is like they take the whole thing,” Chan said.

She argued the authority’s tender condition should require the de facto owner behind the companies not be the same person.

The tree in question is still under investigation. The authority said last week it had already submitted a report to the government and would hire an independent tree expert to conduct a detailed investigation.