EXPLAINER: How they killed Kons Mary Ann’s attempt to override Mayor Mike’s veto of her ordinance granting City Council the power of subpoena and contempt. 12 councilors, who earlier supported it, abstained. Kons Joy Young wondered ‘why we can’t fight the mayor for our right.’

CEBU City Councilor Mary Ann de los Santos (BOPK) had no illusion about the dominance of the majority party Barug in the Sangguniang Panlungsod.

She knew she would lose in the “numbers game” but she appealed for her colleagues during its regular session Wednesday (January 25, 2023) to consider the intent of her ordinance that would grant the City Council the power to investigate “in aid of legislation,” subpoena witnesses and documents, and seek punishment to those who disobey. She said the ordinance is intended solely “to promote transparency and accountability.”

REASONS FOR VETO. Mayor Mike Rama made a direct veto of the ordinance (#2673, series of 2022) in a letter received by the Sanggunian last January 19, citing these reasons: (1) It was “ultra vires” or outside the City Council’s authority. (2) It was “prejudicial to public service.” The local legislature approved the de los Santos ordinance on final reading, with no opposition or abstention.

The City Council killed de los Santos’s motion to override the mayor’s veto. Twelve councilors just watched (they abstained), three voted for life (yes to the override), and three didn’t show up for the “execution.” A vote of two-thirds, or 12 of the 18-member Sanggunian, was required to reject the mayor’s rejection.

MIKE’S PAST STAND RECALLED. Councilor de los Santos recalled that Mike Rama had publicly declared an advocacy for “transparency and accountability,” citing his condemnation of the P383 million garbage contract scandal, which the City Council asked the NBI to investigate, resulting in the filing last December 15, 2022 of plunder charges against a total of 15 city officials and owners and managers of two private firms.

De los Santos brought back Rama’s past moves – as then vice mayor, in a privileged speech, and as acting mayor, in two memos to the two contractors – flinging a Rama line at the act of veto: “We will start right. We cannot have zero corruption. But we will have a better picture of transparency and accountability.”

Councilor Joy Young, defending his “yes” vote, said he was surprised why Mayor Rama vetoed the ordinance when Rama -- as then vice mayor and councilor -- would’ve supported de los Santos’s ordinance. He wondered why “we cannot fight the mayor for our right.”

WHY THE ABSTENTION. Twelve councilors abstained, including Jessica Resch of the Sangguniang Kabatan who has been identified with the minority BOPK, and Majority Floor Leader Joy Pesquera who helped improve the ordinance by changing its focus and title.

The abstention would first strike the public as a change of mind. Wednesday’s “not-yes-nor-nay” voters supported, or didn’t oppose, the ordinance when the City Council passed it on final reading last December 21, 2022.

At least two councilors explained their abstention: Joel Garganera said there are other ways to get information, as he did when he filed on September 22, 2016 a petition for writ of “kalikasan” against then mayor Tomas Osmeña for the closure of the city’s dump site. Jerry Guardo cited the Constitution, which he said doesn’t provide for the power granted by de los Santos ordinance. But the said explanations were for a “no” vote, not abstention.

Probable reasons for the abstention vote under Robert’s Rules of Order: conflict of interest, don’t want to disclose one’s stand on an issue, too conflicted to cast a vote on it, or don’t know enough about the dispute and don’t feel right to vote on it.

An interpretation that can’t be avoided about the councilors who abstained: They didn’t want to rebuff and anger the mayor but at the same time they didn’t want the public to think they’re against “transparency and accountability.” No one dared to leave “the safe zone,” one City Hall veteran watcher said.

‘TESTING THE WATERS.’ Oddly, no councilor, in past and more recent discussions -- and the mayor’s veto as well -- mentioned that the immediate and compelling reason to be wary about the ordinance is Supreme Court jurisprudence. The ruling in the Negros Oriental II Electric Cooperative case, undisturbed for more than five decades, says in sum that local governments have no power of contempt and the duty to inquire into matters “in aid of legislation” can be done without the Sanggunian acting like Congress.

De los Santos earlier said the ordinance would’ve “tested the waters” and repeated that note of disappointment in her appeal Wednesday. Councilor Rey Gealon, chairman of the committee on laws, told me last December 23, 2022, “this is the first in the country, which will surely enrich jurisprudence if challenged for its constitutionality.”

Both de los Santos and Gealon knew the legal barrier and wanted to see if the Cebu City ordinance could hurdle it.

WHAT DE LOS SANTOS RELIED ON. Two points Councilor de los Santos pounded on Wednesday to dispute Mayor Rama’s legal reasons for his vote:

[1] The veto didn’t consider the fact that the Revised Cebu City Charter provides the City Council the right to investigate complaints and her ordinance would’ve given “life” to that right.

What the councilor didn’t say though: The right provided by the City Charter is limited to investigation of complaints filed under oath involving an irregularity or anomaly in the City Government. It doesn’t say the local legislature can investigate any matter “in aid of legislation,” which her ordinance provides.

[2] The City Council, under her ordinance, by itself does not actually impose out the penalty for contempt. The local legislature has to file a complaint, which the court may or may not grant.

That should be an interesting point of contention: whether the Sanggunian exercises the power of contempt when it is the court, not the local legislature, that decides and metes out the punishment.