Former director of planning Ling Kar-kan was hired to be the Conservation Coordinator for the Lantau Development project without an open recruitment process, according to a FactWire investigation.
Ling Kar-kan, who served as the director of planning from December 2012 to November 2016, was the only candidate invited to fill the job. Ling’s subordinate officer was one of the committee members who proposed to hire him.
Since November last year, the government has been seeking the Legislative Council’s funding approval to establish the Sustainable Lantau Office under the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD). The office would be in charge of development and conservation plans for Lantau Island.
However, green groups lambasted the establishment of the office for putting sole focus on development instead of balancing both objectives. The Finance Committee of Legco will debate the funding request when it resumes in October after the summer recess.
Specific entry requirements
In May this year, the CEDD hired Ling, retired, to be the conservation coordinator on contract terms without open recruitment. Ling proposed development plans for the East Lantau Metropolis when he was the director of planning. As conservation coordinator, Ling reports directly to the top CEDD official.
The CEDD confirmed to FactWire that the position was opened in May. The coordinator is “responsible for offering strategic advices and coordination work on Lantau Island conservation matters, and supporting the conservation team under the Lantau Development Advisory Committee (which includes members of the local community, conservationists and green groups).”
The entry requirements were specific. The CEDD stated that the position is appointed on contract terms on a targeted basis under the Post-retirement Service Contract scheme, and the applicant must be “a directorate grade town planner who is either retired (for not more than three years) or currently on pre-retirement leave.”
Ling, 60 years old, took up the role as the Director of Planning in December 2012, and took his pre-retirement leave on November 22 last year. Ling advocated “Hong Kong 2030+: Towards a Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030,” a guide on planning, land and infrastructure development in Hong Kong.
He also proposed development plans for the East Lantau Metropolis, an area composing of 1000 hectares of land and accommodates a population of 400 thousand to 700 thousand.
On July 5, FactWire tried to contact Ling at the special duties division of the Hong Kong Island and Islands Development Office in Quarry Bay. However, Ling turned down the interview through his colleague.
The special duties division is responsible for the advance preparation of promoting the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint, a plan that outlines various measures with the focus of “development in the North, conservation for the South” for Lantau. There are 20 staff members in the division, including engineers and planners.
A senior member of staff told FactWire that Ling has rich experience in planning and a passion for conservation, adding that he is responsible for providing advice on conservation and development concerning Lantau Island.
The staff member said: “It is a waste of his talent… He has lots of experience, and now he has to accommodate… He urged us to go to Lantau Island with him many times and gave us suggestions on what to do at which locations…His status is especially high, very special indeed, so he reports directly to the Director of Civil Engineering and Development.”
Should the Sustainable Lantau Office be approved in LegCo, Ling would continue to work for the office until the end of his contact in May next year, the staff member added. If Ling wishes to extend the contract, further details would be discussed.
Focus on development
On the day of FactWire’s visit, at least six green groups that expressed concerns about the development of Lantau Island were invited to a meeting at the Hong Kong Island and Islands Development office behind closed doors, in which Ling did not participate.
One of the green group representatives who did not wish to be named told FactWire that the officials were keen on persuading them to support the funding request for the establishment of the Sustainable Lantau Office. While repeatedly stressing the objective to conserve Lantau Island, they did not provide concrete measures.
FactWire then contacted the conservation team under the Lantau Development Advisory Committee that was claimed to be supported by the Conservation Coordinator. Members of the team include Southern District Councillor Paul Zimmerman, Ho Pui-han of the Association of Tai O Environment and Development, and Ken So Kwok-yin of the Conservancy Association.
All three of them were apparently “unaware” of Ling working as the Conservation Coordinator of Lantau Island. So said he is unfamiliar with Ling’s duties and scope of work, and the fact that the government “picked an official with a development-oriented background for the post” made him question “whether he could really resolve worries about Lantau developments.”
Zimmerman pointed that Ling gave the go-ahead signal to such plans in the past and was the “promoter and salesperson” of Lantau development. He doubted whether the government truly cares about conservation.
According to minutes of the Lantau Development Advisory Committee, Ling, then-director of planning, said in his last meeting with the committee on November 5 last year before taking pre-retirement leave that ‘it was necessary to establish a dedicated office for Lantau development and conservation. A dedicated office like the Energizing Kowloon East Office had well-defined objectives and could coordinate the work of different departments, for more effective implementation of various initiatives and projects.”
FactWire made an enquiry to the CEDD in mid-July on the reasons why the department did not recruit a conservation specialist through open recruitment for the position of a Conservation Coordinator. Factwire also asked whether the recruitment was tailor-made for Ling and puts more focus on development.
On July 18, the CEDD replied that the addition of a conservation coordinator position aims at restoring balance on both development and conservation objectives, a counteractive action initiated upon collecting feedback from the public on the need to strengthen conservation measures.
The CEDD added that “the candidate must possess relevant specific expertise and experience on planning and conservation, be familiarized with government structures and operations and have concrete experience on regulating and implementing policies.” The arrangement is therefore appropriate and in accordance with the PRSC scheme.
Questions over recruitment
FactWire then discovered that Ginger Kiang Kam-yin, then-district planning officer and Ling’s subordinate officer before retirement, was a member of the selection committee that proposed hiring Ling as conservation coordinator. Transferred to the Hong Kong Island and Islands Development Office as the Deputy Project Manager (Special Duties) in October last year, Kiang’s salary rose from point 1 to point 2 of the directorate pay scale.
The Hong Kong Island and Islands Development Office twice opened up two ad hoc positions for Deputy Project Manager (Special Duties) and Deputy Project Manager (Special Projects) last October and this April respectively, according to replies from the CEDD. Each working period was limited to six months.
The position added last October includes duties such as formulating the Sustainable Lantau Blueprint. The reply stated that Kiang was temporarily transferred from the Planning Department as she fits the role, which involves a large amount of planning work. Kiang’s work period ended in April.
The CEDD added another position titled as Deputy Project Manager (Special Projects) in April and again assigned Kiang to the job. The post is in charge of “coordination, management and administration” of the proposed rural conservation pilot projects on Lantau Island mentioned in the Policy Address in January. Kiang’s term will last until October.
The Conservation Coordinator would report directly to the Director of Civil Engineering and Development, the CEDD told FactWire. The coordinator should have no direct line of command vis-a-vis the Project Manager (Hong Kong Island and Islands) and Deputy Project Manager (Special Duties) or Deputy Project Manager (Special Projects) of the Hong Kong Island and Islands Office.
However, the CEDD refused to comment on whether Kiang was involved in deciding the hiring of Ling, citing privacy reasons. It stressed that the recruitment was carried out according to guidelines and regulations of the Civil Service Bureau (CSB).
The CSB issued a notice and guideline on the Post-retirement Service Contract scheme in November 2015 stating that “guidelines should be drawn up…to avoid creating a culture of cronyism or flattery in the Civil Service,” that “due caution should be exercised in drawing the line of grades or ranks that would be eligible for blanket permission to forestall any real or perceived conflict of interest,” and that the reasons for hiring a retired official should be provided in case the recruitment is put under question.
FactWire quoted the notice and made enquiries to the CEDD. The department revealed on July 24 in a reply that there was a selection committee that proposed hiring Ling, and members include Director of Civil Engineering and Development Lam Sai-hung, Project Manager (Hong Kong Island and Islands) Robin Lee Kui-biu as well as Kiang.
The CEDD said that the recruitment was conducted “according to preset objective guidelines and Ling was then advised to be hired.” Kiang was assigned to the committee for her experience in planning and conservation, and she “did not suggest adding the position and participate in forming the requirements and guidelines for recruitment, nor was she authorized to approve hiring anyone for the job.” It was the Director of Civil Engineering and Development who authorized the employment and issued a letter of offer to Ling in March.
Documents concerning the Sustainable Lantau Office submitted by the CEDD to Legco on November 22 last year proposed adding four supernumerary directorate posts in the CEDD, one of them being a government town planner to be designated as Deputy Head of the office. The newly added post is on point 2 of the directorate pay scale (D2) and would be in charge of the implementation and coordination of development and conservation programmes.
The CEDD organization chart shows that there was only one Deputy Project Manager (D2) in the Hong Kong Island and Islands Development Office. FactWire made an enquiry to the CEDD on whether the Deputy Project Manager (Special Projects) would be relocated to the Sustainable Lantau Office as Deputy Project Manager upon approval of funding in Legco.
The CEDD replied that the establishment of the office has yet to go through the Legco Finance Committee, that “there are no confirmed arrangements at this stage concerning the post of Deputy Project Manager of the office” and they would “review the staffing of the office at a proper time.” There would be an estimated number of around a hundred staff members (including internally reallocated staff) after the establishment of the office.
Only one forestry officer
The Legco Establishment Subcommittee began reviewing the funding request for the Sustainable Lantau Office proposal in late April. The addition of four directorate posts would cost HKD$7.9 million each year.
The office would consist of only one Forestry Officer in charge of conservation duties among 11 professionals, who are mainly engineers and architects, sparking criticisms for focusing only on development. Neither had the CEDD mentioned the hiring of Ling as the Conservation Coordinator on contract nor his exact duties during at least three discussions on the funding request from late April to early June.
Ling was appointed as the Director of Planning since December 2012, and belonged to point 5 of the directorate pay scale (D5). He could receive a maximum allowance of HKD$233,000.
Ling’s Conservation Coordinator contract is on a one-year basis, paid an hourly wage and calculated according to the proportion of salary point scale of senior officers and their respective regulated working hours, according to the CEDD reply. No gratuities or subsidies would be offered, and weekly working hours are 18. The maximum allowance for senior officers (at a master pay scale of point of 34 to 44) is HKD$99,205 and working hours are 44 per week. Calculating Ling’s salary based on the proportion, Ling would receive a payment of HKD$40,500 per month.
According to CSB regulations, the sanitisation period for D5 officials is 12 months upon cessation of active duty. Within this period of time, officials could not engage in post-service outside work unless exempted by the CSB. The control period is 2 years upon officially leaving the government, and the official has to seek approval from the CSD to work in private organizations. Such regulations would not apply to contract positions under the Post-retirement Service Contract scheme.
The Post-retirement Service Contract Scheme was launched in November 2015 to enable government departments to adjust their staffing level and staff mix flexibly to meet their service needs, and facilitate transfer of expertise by tapping the pool of retired or retiring civil servants.