EXPLAINER: Sanggunian scrambles to save Capitol-Cebu City land swap, which Guv Gwen deems rescinded. Occupants, mostly city voters, press City Hall for their lot titles.

Pachico A. Seares
·4 min read

THE City Council's ad hoc committee on the Capitol-Cebu City land swap agreement reconvened Thursday, March 18, to assess the status of the nearly-three-year-old agreement. The meeting was "very preliminary," the councilors said, but their goal was to "finalize" the long-drawn-out deal "by October 2021."

The meeting was the Sanggunian's response to the letter of the 93-1 Movement seeking its help to protect its rights under the deal sealed on August 3, 2018 by then governor, now vice governor, Hilario Davide Jr. and then city mayor Tomas Osmeña.

It was the second letter to the City Council from the 93-1 Movement, named after the lots involved, which were covered by Provincial Ordinance 93-1.

The group is composed of residents of the province-owned land, estimated at 32 hectares in 11 city barangays, that was exchanged with 2.5-hectare lot at South Road Properties and 9-hectare property in Consolacion, Cebu.

Councilor Eugenio Gabuya Jr. wanted the Sanggunian to "encourage" Mayor Edgardo Labella to implement the land swap but his motion was narrowly voted down. Apparently, the majority realized that it was now tougher to do that because of the change of stance at Capitol under the Garcia administration.

GWEN'S DEMAND. Earlier, on January 27, the City Council received a letter from Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia, addressed to Mayor Edgardo Labella, requesting the return of certificates of title to the Capitol-owned lots.

Governor Garcia explicitly demanded "mutual restitution": each party returns what it got from the other. Lawyers call it "status quo ante," the previously existing state of affairs.

The city would return the OODCTs or owner's original duplicate certificates of title. Capitol would return "occupation of the SRP lot that was made part of the transaction" and title to the Consolacion property.

Last December 18, 2019, City Council Majority Floor-leader Raymond Garcia said they initially agreed to return the Capitol properties covered by the land swap and renegotiate. But occupants, he said, "will remain in their places" while the Capitol-City Hall pact is under review.

PRESSURE ON CITY. The deal forged by Davide and Osmeña is off, as far as the Capitol is concerned. It does not mean though it won't go back to negotiating table. The governor's letter didn't rule that out.

As for the city, apparently it was still studying its legal options but it surely wants those lots.

City Hall's goal was made clear by Councilor who, after Thursday's ad hoc committee meeting, reportedly "assured" beneficiaries of the land swap that "by the end of this year, they will be the owners of their lots." Earlier, last February 12, Mayor Labella said he awaited the committee's recommendation. Talks were going on "to have a win-win solution in this issue."

Pressure is clearly heavier on City Hall than on Capitol to push the deal through. The occupants of the lots, more than 4,000 residents, are city voters and the 2022 election season has practically begun.

COA FLAGGING, CITY'S RIGHT. It does not look like the City will insist on the original contract in the face of Governor Gwen's decision to scrap it.

City Hall can litigate or wait for Capitol to sue. The contract is binding between the parties even though the Commission on Audit flagged it in its 2019 audit report to the Capitol, released in July 2020, for lack of COA approval before the deeds of transfer were signed. But COA sought only for explanation, it did not declare the contract invalid and it merely warned that future transactions "involving the disposal of any Capitol-owned properties through negotiations" must have COA clearance.

It was not a fatal defect, Councilor Gabuya insisted in last Wednesday's session. Last December 3, 2017, the Division for the City's Urban Poor said they were awaiting COA central office's approval on the exchange of properties, indicating that the flaw could be corrected.

CCQC SITE AS PROOF OF RESCISSION. Capitol is also looking at rescission by the City Government, citing that Cebu City has used Block 27 of the North Reclamation Area for the Cebu City Quarantine Center (CCQC), "which should have been in the hands of the Provincial Government if the deed of donation and land swap is to be considered." The governor's letter said "Capitol takes this construction at Block 27 as prima facie fact of rescission of the land swap deal."

It was not known if City Hall obtained permission from Capitol for the CCQC site or had forgotten that the lot was already ceded to the Province. The slip is being exploited by Capitol to assail the land swap.

UPPER-HAND IN TALKS. However the City rates its legal options, the Province appears to have the upper-hand at the negotiating table.

The councilors' assurance of finally ending the decades-long 93-1 controversy before yearend appears to confirm that. City Hall might reach its goal of a "win-win solution" but at a much higher price.