EXPLAINER: Why Cebu City Council is restive over un-liquidated Covid funds. VM Rama turns councilors into 'fiscalizers,' says he'll be rubber stamp no more.

Pachico A. Seares
·5 min read

AT A GLANCE: [1] A liquidation of P3.5 billion appropriated by the Cebu City Council for anti-Covid-19 expenses was rescheduled again when at the special session Wednesday morning, November 11, the councilors complained they got the report just one day before and City Hall's important department heads did not show up.

[2] As early as last May, a resolution, filed by Councilor Alvin Dizon (BOPK), sought the liquidation of the P1 billion granted in March under a supplemental budget. It did not come. Since then, the money for Covid granted to the executive department has grown to P3.5 billion although some of it was allotted for other purposes, such as the subsidy for the city's seniors and people with disabilities, and tucked into the extra budgets. Still the funds are huge, Minority Floor Leader Nestor Archival said, bigger than Quezon City's P2.8 billion budget for the public health crisis.

[3] The City Council set another date of the session on the report, with these conditions, which Minority Floor Leader Raymond Garcia and Vice Mayor Mike Rama laid out: (a) the report of the committee on finance shall be provided the councilors one week before the session; (b) each councilor shall study the report and submit his comments, which will be collated with similar comments of the other councilors and presented by an ad hoc committee to the source of the report for explanation and more information if required; and (c) the council in plenary will decide on its formal response to the report.

'FISCALIZER.' A strange development in the November 11 sessions (special in the morning and regular in the afternoon) was the move of VM Rama, presiding officer, who declared there will be no more majority and minority parties in the Sanggunian and that all the councilors will be considered "fiscalizers."

Mike Rama cajoled each councilor to declare that he or she is a "fiscalizer," asking more than once Council Secretary Atty. Charisse Piramide to read the definition of the word. She cited Wordnik's principal meaning of "to fiscalize": "to examine, manage or regulate a matter of business in respect to its fiscal or revenue features." "To fiscalize" and "fiscalizer," however, are not in the standard dictionary, according to language enthusiast Joe Carillo. The words are said to be Pinoy invention and, in the context of local politics, refer to the public image of a fighter for some cause, usually to expose or check irregularities or anomalies.

Since the majority councilors belong to Partido Barug and the minority councilors to BOPK, each legislator owes party allegiance and gets the cue on which issue to attack or defend from his political leader. How would a "fiscalizer" councilor vote on a partisan question? Are the councilors in effect now fiscalizers of the Labella administration?

"RUBBER STAMP." VM Rama could just be posturing but his declarations in the Nov. 11 session were those of a "fiscalizer," as in critic, if not oppositionist.

He said he would no longer be a "rubber stamp": "I was before but not anymore." He didn't say to whom but he was vice mayor to then mayor Tomas Osmeña (2001-2010) and starting in 2019 to Mayor Edgar Labella.

Mike Rama said he would "no longer be approving without thinking," implying he did so before. "And what are we afraid of? Sige lang tang antos?"

PURCHASE OF RICE, CANNED GOODS. When asked by VM Rama what they would want the liquidation report to contain, Councilor Niña Mabatid said that may be left to the discretion of the finance committee. The councilors could ask later for the additional information they want.

Councilor James Cuenco was more blunt. Most of them want only the controversial stuff, he said, particularly the purchases of rice and canned goods. Councilor Archival pressed for copies of purchase orders, saying they contain vital information such as brand, price and the like. Councilor Dizon suggested the report tackle the spending under the first tranche of P1 billion, approved in March yet, for the convenience of the people preparing the report.

Whichever data the councilors want, what apparently has drawn the councilors' resentment, if not anger, is the delay in submitting the information, highlighted by the snubbing of the City Council's invitation by some department heads. "Grabe kadugay. Why is it so hard to liquidate?" Archival wondered aloud.

Archival joined the vice mayor's call for the City Council to finish the business of liquidation and put the issue "to rest" so they could tackle the general appropriation ordinance for 2021.

DELEGATED AUTHORITY. The vice mayor also seems to be irked by the fact that the mayor and his department heads have been spending the Covid funds without the usual approval of the City Council.

The nature of the emergency, however, dictated that Mayor Labella be granted wide latitude on the spending of such a huge amount for prompt response to the plague.

They gave the mayor the authority to decide on how to spend the money but, one councilor told SunStar, "on condition there would be prompt liquidation" as part of the Sanggunian's oversight function.

Pressure to seek liquidation increased when some councilors received information on alleged irregularities in the purchase of relief goods. Plus the fact -- though most likely they won't admit it -- some of them were being shut out from the distribution of assistance.

OTHER SIGNALS. The conversion of the councilors into "fiscalizers" followed the vice mayor's other suspicion-arousing moves, such as organizing protocol enforcers groups (PEMs) in 80 barangays of the city, patterned after Mayor Labella's information and liaison offices called MILOs.

And other statements heavy with political meaning, such as "If I were the mayor, I would be there at the flooded areas and solving the problem... I would be meeting with all the people needed to solve it."

Last Wednesday, he was talking about being "fiscalizers" and the need for checks and balance.