PJ Garcia: Clear the road to local autonomy

BELOW is a copy of Deputy Speaker Pablo John Garcia's privilege speech delivered Tuesday, March 10.

PRIVILEGE SPEECH

DEPUTY SPEAKER PABLO JOHN F. GARCIA

Congressman, 3rd District of Cebu

March 10, 2020

CLEAR THE ROAD TO LOCAL AUTONOMY

Mr. Speaker and distinguished colleagues in the House of Representatives:

In a series of memorandum circulars over the past few months, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) has charged LGUs nationwide -- provinces, cities and municipalities -- with the task of (1) clearing of roads: national, provincial, city/municipal and barangay roads; and (2) banning tricycles and pedicabs from operating national highways. These memorandum circulars have set April 30th as the deadline, and warn non-complying LGUs with administrative cases under Section 60 of the Local Government Code.

On the surface, the task seems straightforward enough. The regulation of public roads, after all, is within the express powers of LGUs, and the clearing of roads and banning of tricycles and pedicabs would fall under this general power of the LGU. We all share in the objective sought to be achieved: Who doesn’t want roads cleared of obstructions; who doesn’t want safer, smoother trips along national highways?

But the manner in which this stated national objective is sought to be implemented by supposedly autonomous -- constitutionally and by law -- local government units is what we, as legislators, the authors of the law on local autonomy, should be concerned about.

Not only are local government units being compelled to exercise their power to regulate public roads, the DILG is dictating these LGUs on how to exercise this power, complete with the specific provisions to include in the ordinances to be passed by supposedly autonomous sanggunians. Even, if I may add, specific features of a tricycle or pedicab that may be allowed to ply national highways under specific conditions.

Yes, it specifies that tricycles must have clean windshields, and a functioning horn that -- quote -- does not emit exceptionally loud or startling sound. Unquote.

Not only does the DILG memorandum circular order cities and municipalities to create a “Tricycle Task Force,” the DILG has determined its composition and has enumerated its specific duties and functions. It would seem that sanggunians cannot be trusted to figure this out for themselves. And what if the LGU already has an existing Tricycle Regulatory Board or Unit? The cities and municipalities still have to create a Tricycle Task Force “separate and distinct” from this existing unit. Why? Only the DILG knows why, although I can only surmise that it may be because they had no hand in the creation of these existing boards or units.

What is the DILG’s legal basis for ordering LGUs to implement national policy, supplanting the local legislative body’s will, preempting its wisdom, and requiring the sanggunian instead to mechanically copy-paste what the DILG deems is good for everyone, dispensing its wisdom from up above, for the officials below to blindly follow? Worse, what gives it the power to threaten administrative cases and penalties should the LGUs fail to follow its dictates to the letter?

Since when has the DILG begun exercising the power of control over LGUs?

This certainly was not what we intended the relationship to be between the DILG and the LGUs when this body passed the Local Government Code in implementation of the constitutional grant of local autonomy. The Executive, with the DILG as alter ego, merely has general supervision over local government units, “to ensure that their acts are within the scope of their prescribed powers and functions.”

Certainly not the power of control, which is the power to revise or reverse the acts or decisions of a subordinate officer involving exercise of discretion. In this case, worse than revising or reversing decisions of the LGUs, the DILG it is imposing its own will upon the LGUs, in advance of or to supplant whatever decisions it may yet, or may have already made.

Consider, for instance, the following example. Beyond ordering LGUs to clear roads, the DILG mandates further that the LGU: “Ensure that the cleared roads are rehabilitated and restored for public use through efforts such as cleaning and flushing, installation of street lights, erection of appropriate signage, setting of appropriate speed limit and the like.”

What is the legal basis for the order to rehabilitate and restore cleared roads, or to install street lights and street signs, failing which would subject the local chief executive to administrative liability? There is no law requiring this, and certainly a memorandum circular of the DILG does not have the force and effect of law.

What if a municipal mayor fails to rehabilitate and restore a national road, or erect signages along this national road, as this properly is the province of the DPWH? And yet, a mayor courts danger if he doesn’t do as DILG says. He may be charged administratively for failing to do something the law does not require him to do.

The memorandum circular does not only expect a mayor to clear public roads of illegal vendors within 75 days; it also requires him to find and provide, magically within those same 75 days, relocation sites and alternative sources of livelihood for those the DILG forced him to evict. This is not required of him under the law. And yet, the mayor stands in danger of being suspended, not for violating a law -- for there is none -- but on the strength of a DILG memorandum circular.

From up above these memorandum circulars descended upon our hapless unsuspecting mayors and governors and are now being enforced without the LGUs first being consulted. This violates Section 2 (c) of the very Local Government Code the DILG is tasked to implement which provides;

"c) It is likewise the policy of the State to require all national agencies and offices to conduct periodic consultations with appropriate local government units, nongovernmental and people's organizations, and other concerned sectors of the community before any project or program is implemented in their respective jurisdictions."

That is the statement of policy which we, Congress, have defined, and it should define the relationship between the DILG and the LGUs. LGUs are consulted, not ordered around. LGUs are partners in implementing national policy; not miscreants one threatens with punishment at every turn.

It is important that we, in Congress, raise these questions, and put this interplay of powers in their proper perspective, not only because it is we who are tasked by the Constitution to put flesh into the spirit of local autonomy it advocates. More importantly, it is because our mayors and governors are afraid to raise these questions themselves.

And who wouldn’t be afraid? When the governor of Cebu, for instance, questioned the DILG’s rating system in the road clearing program, and asked why certain LGUs were singled out as failures while others were not, you would think that the DILG, in accordance with their duty to consult under Section 2 (c) of the Local Government Code would offer clear answers. But, no. What she got, instead, was an assistant secretary in a press conference threatening that the DILG would sue the governor in court, should she continue to -- and I quote -- “challenge” the DILG.

How did it happen, that an assistant secretary thinks the DILG to be so beyond criticism, that legitimate questions about its policies have become an actionable wrong? Granting that, as an undersecretary privately admitted to me, he was out of line, it may well be asked: what accounts for this kind of thinking, that the unelected should think he could bark orders at the elected, and brook no questions or criticism from those that the people chose to serve them?

The DILG seems to be operating under the premise that they have the power of control over LGUs when they do not. When the Province of Cebu, for instance, through its sangguniang panlalawigan, and in the exercise of its general welfare power, banned the importation of meat products from areas affected by the African Swine Fever outbreak, the DILG issued a memorandum ordering 56 LGUs to lift the ban on certain pork products from Luzon. This is the exercise of control, which power it does not have, for it seeks to reverse or revise -- even repeal -- an ordinance, on the strength of a mere memorandum. Can a memorandum from the DILG repeal an ordinance?

And it is unfortunate to note that whenever the DILG makes a public announcement about a policy to be implemented by the LGUs and our local chief executives, it is always with overbearing words like “orders,” “warns,” or "threatens." Is it too much work to “ask,” to “urge,” to “encourage”? Words, most certainly, but words matter. How we use words is shaped by how we view the world.

I believe, Mr. Speaker and distinguished colleagues, that we need to put everything back in its place. Put everything in their proper perspective. As we say when our technological devices hit a snag and freeze: We need a hard restart. And we, in Congress, in the exercise of our oversight powers, need to remind the DILG what its proper role is, in a constitutional system that values local autonomy, and in an administration seeking a transition to even greater autonomy through federalism.

The DILG needs to be reminded that we have a President who became a legendary mayor because he lived and breathed local autonomy. When Davao’s mining ban was threatened with Malacañang pressure in 2015, for instance, Davao rallied behind its mayor, who stood his ground. He achieved much and Davao became a model city not in spite of, but because of Davao having been left largely on its own.

I believe there is a way forward, Mr. Speaker. And I believe that Secretary Año, with his dedication, leadership and professionalism can correct some of his subordinate’s missteps, and walk us back to the path we in Congress intended when we passed the Local Government Code: local government units that are autonomous, not automatons; local chief executives that are partners, not pariah viewed with condescension and suspicion. There is a reason why our President is a staunch advocate of federalism: We trust that those who have been chosen by the people to lead them will do well left largely on their own.