EXPLAINER: Cebu City councilors shunning special bodies, City Hall having too many special bodies, and the problems they create.

Pachico A. Seares
·4 min read

AT A GLANCE. [1] Cebu City Vice Mayor Michael Rama, presiding officer of the City Council, in last Wednesday’s (November 4) regular session, informed the city legislature that they at the city zoning board are beset with the problem of quorum because members do not attend meetings in person and just send representatives who cannot vote and don’t know the board’s business.

That in turn led to the reasons why many councilors fail to send and at times don’t even send a representative and the question on the necessity of legislators sitting in some special bodies.

[2] The discussion led Councilor James Cuenco, chairman of the committee on oversight, to move for a review of the system on special bodies, studying the need for representation and the number of representatives from the City Council in each special body. The motion will go to the committee on laws, which will start with the zoning board’s case.

WHY THEY SKIP MEETINGS. The reasons cited by some councilors are topped by the question of need -- should they attend meetings of special bodies at all? -– which also will bring up the other causes of absenteeism.

Councilor Joy Young wondered why a councilor must sit at a special body’s meeting when one’s committee is only remotely related to its purpose. They personally don’t have the time or the representative to send, Young said. (VM Rama said the substitute often doesn’t know much or anything about the special body’s work.) Councilor Phillip Zafra cited his committee on public order being a member of the zoning board. Councilor Alvin Dizon disagreed, saying that it is part of the oversight function of a councilor to know how specific problems are being addressed by the executive department so they can fix it, if needed, by legislation.

A dampener on councilors’ enthusiasm to attend may be the absence of honorarium, which is reportedly granted only to private members. City Hall officials and employees are supposedly banned from getting extra pay for their attendance at meetings of special bodies. Giving them honorarium would create another problem: councilors wanting to sit in as many special bodies as they can.

The emerging consensus seems to limit participation to special bodies where a councilor is needed and to require non-delegation. It was not ascertained if the City Council could amend the ordinance so as to enable a representative to be counted for quorum and to vote.

SO MANY SPECIAL BODIES? Since Mayor Edgardo Labella assumed office on June 30, 2019, he had convened 30 commissions, some of which are tasked to help City Hall tackle major problems, such as traffic, flood control, law and order, and the like. That was the number released by City Hall as of December 31 last year.

In the City Council session last November 4, City Council Secretary lawyer Charisse Piramide and Majority Floor Leader Raymond Garcia said the city has 57 commissions, boards and other special bodies. Records say some 199 public officials and employees sit in special bodies.

The private members, a news report earlier said, are mostly wives and relatives of politicians or the candidates themselves who lost in the 2019 elections. One, former councilor Jun Alcover, holds two seats, for which he receives pay. A lump sum is appropriated each year to the office of the mayor for the honorarium of private members of special bodies.

Private members, as mentioned more than once in the City Council session, are paid while councilors are not. That makes the special bodies some source of political patronage, which may draw questions on the actual and real need for some of them.

MAYOR’S TOOL. Commissions, boards and other special bodies supposedly help the chief executive govern and the City Council legislate.

The trap, as a former city administrator once pointed out, is that a mayor will tend to respond to any major problem with the easy and convenient, “I will create a task force or committee.” Often too, a special body is not terminated although it has met or outlived its purpose. Many fail to accomplish its mission and yet languish until the new administration packs it with its own appointees.

There’s also the matter of duplication and confusion: too many people supposedly looking into one problem. On the recent flash floods, the City Council listened to bureaucrats and other experts at the City Council even as the mayor’s flood commission was set to listen to the same resource persons. Some coordination may help, not just between the mayor and the City Council but also between the special body and the councilors.

OPPORTUNITY TO SCALE DOWN. A review of the special bodies and the rules regulating their operation offers a chance for the City Council to see (a) which special bodies require the presence and involvement of city legislators, (b) which special bodies need to be scrapped, (c) that councilors must attend the meetings personally or, if they allow a representative, give him the right to vote and be part of the quorum count.