EXPLAINER: COA slams hiring of casuals by Cebu City Hall and ‘cycle of open violations’ dating back to Tomas Osmeña’s term in 2008. Sharp rise in 2021: 3,740 hired as 2,320 plantilla positions stay vacant.

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KEY ISSUES. 1. The Commission on Audit’s (COA) review of Cebu City transactions in 2021 flags the violation involving casual employees: the City hired almost 4,000 casuals when it should have filled instead almost 3,000 vacant regular positions.

2. The violations have become serial, with COA citing irregularities from 2018, with CSC warnings not heeded by different mayors.

WHY COA IS MIFFED OVER CASUALS. In 2021, COA says in its audit report on transactions made in that year, the Cebu City Government “still issued casual appointments” to 3,740 employees who performed duties of plantilla positions.

City Hall, through the mayor, did that, COA says, despite these facts on record: a) 2,320 regular positions were then available and unoccupied at City Hall and (b) the Civil Service Commission (CSC) had made repeated reminders and eventually disapproved the appointments that violated rules on appointments.

COA says the City must have the funds for the regular positions since it had money to pay the casual employees it hired.

THE VIOLATED RULE. Under the CSC’s Omnibus Rules on Appointments and Other Human Resources Actions, a casual appointment is issued “only for essential and necessary services where there are not enough regular staff to meet the demands of the service and for emergency cases and intermittent periods not to exceed one year. “In no case” shall a casual fill a vacant plantilla position or perform the duties of the vacant plantilla position, the CSC rules say. Note the exceptions: during emergency and not to exceed one year.

COA, in its audit of Cebu City transactions in 2021, turns to the Supreme Court decision in Munez vs. Jomo, which said, citing various CSC Regional Office rulings, that the Constitution has adopted the merit system to ensure that appointees are competent and “to eradicate political considerations and partisanship and personal favoritism.” The SC said the “massive” hiring of casuals does not “speak well of good faith both in economy and efficiency.”

AGAIN AND AGAIN. In 2008, under then mayor Tomas Osmeña, the COA report says appointments of 1,420 casuals were disallowed by the CSC Field Office-South.

After that, COA says, “numerous disapprovals of appointments” were handed down by CSC, with “repeated reminders” to fill up the vacant regular positions instead of hiring casuals. That period of time must include -- though not mentioned by COA -- the terms of Michael Rama who served as mayor from 2010 to 2013 and 2013 to 2016 (and some parts of the late Edgardo Labella’s term) and of Tomas Osmeña who was mayor from 2016 to 2019.

COA specifies the 2,522 casuals appointed from January. 1 to June 30, 2020 by then mayor Labella. The CSC Field Office disallowed them but CSC Regional Office reversed the decision on appeal, accepting the City’s justification that “hardship” of the pandemic in the first half of the year prompted the violation. The CSC Regional Office, though, in ruling for the City, warned “in strong and categorical terms that a repetition of the shall not be countenanced.”

That warning, COA says in its report, didn’t deter Rama’s predecessor from hiring “another set” of casuals for the July-December 2020 period. A total of 979 cases in the second half of 2020 were disapproved by the CSC Field Office and affirmed by CSC Regional Office, COA says.

In other words, the pandemic card was no longer acceptable. Yet the City Government didn’t change behavior in 2021.

‘INADEQUATE’ EFFORT TO COMPLY. In answer to a COA inquiry of February 7, 2022, the City reported having filled 232 out of 2,320 vacant plantilla positions at City Hall. That’s only 10 percent of the total, COA notes, describing the effort as “insignificant” and “inadequate.”

At about that time, Mike Rama -- who had been serving as full-fledged mayor since Labella’s death on November 19, 2021 -- wondered more than once, usually when he addressed City Hall employees at flag ceremony on Mondays, about the actual number of casuals and job-order employees, where they were assigned and what they were doing.

When Rama took over last June 30, under his fresh mandate as mayor, he talked of not rehiring casuals who were dishonest and undesirable and gave the figure of 500 as possible number of workers rejected by July 1.

That may reduce the casuals workforce but the number of unfilled regular posts will remain high. COA has the words for it: “inadequate,” “insignificant.” And “a violation of the rules and the law.”

WHY THE RULE ISN’T FOLLOWED. The reasons must be obvious:

(1) COA barks but does not bite. It keeps emphasizing that “the appointing officer/authority shall be personally liable for the salary an appointee paid after CSC has finally disapproved/invalidated the appointment” (underscored in COA report).

In other words, the mayor pays from his pocket or refunds the salaries of wrongly hired casuals. The continual violations should tell COA that its warnings have not worked. And has any mayor or governor been sanctioned financially or administratively for the violations?

(2) The SC ruling, which COA cites in the 2021 audit, is right of course about the use of casuals for politics and personal ends. But the high court could’ve been direct and blunt. City Hall is itself a big employment agency, with the casuals comprising the bulk of voters whom sitting officials may tap each election. Why they don’t fill the plantilla vacancies: Once employees are protected by Civil Service, it would be tougher to use the City Hall jobs in bargaining for votes.

Past mayors promised to “downsize” or “right-size” the City Hall work force but never got around to doing it. In the 2022 election campaign, Margot Osmeña promised to “fix” City Hall, which must include the problem about casuals. But then, given her husband’s record on that, which COA cited in its report, city voters must have doubted the pledge and picked Rama instead.

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