Seares: Cebu City fund aid to Sinulog: What officials need to clarify

Pachico A. Seares

COULD withholding of Cebu City fund aid to the Sinulog Foundation derail activities for the cultural festival in January 2020?

It could. The issue on funding has not been made clear since Vice Mayor Mike Rama, who presides over the City Counci, disclosed Monday (Nov. 18) that the P35 million donated by the City Government for next year’s Sinulog “cannot be accepted” by the Sinulog Foundation Inc. (SFI).

That raised the alarm among a few City Hall watchers who fear the withholding of the fund aid might “sabotage” the Sinulog that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Cebu.

VM Mike didn’t clearly describe the situation or the worriers didn’t get it.

Handling of fund

What Rama meant was that SFI does not handle the fund aid from the City. The City itself pays out the money for expenses specified by SFI. That has been practiced for a number of years now, Councilor Raymond Garcia confirmed, according to a SunStar news story.

It must have started when COA enforced the rule that prohibits the local government “from giving aid to any nongovernment organization whose incorporator, director, organizer or officer is related to any local official involved in the approval or release of government funds.”

Apparently, the City’s P35 million for the 2020 Sinulog will still be spent but SFI won’t be directly handling the money. It only tells City Hall what expenses to pay. But does that not amount to the same thing, with City Hall being made the SFI’s paymaster?

Conflict of interest

The man who has brought on the ban to SFI is apparently VM Rama himself. Before, he was the SFI chairman. Then this year he resigned as chairman but stays on as director. Thus, the ban also stays. The person that disables SFI from getting direct fund aid from the City is not just “related” to an officer of SFI but is himself an SFI officer. Potential conflict of interest is there, as bright as the sun that shines on City Hall.

Atty. Frank Malilong Jr., in his column Sunday (Nov. 24), cited a 2009 Freeman news story that reported about then mayor Tomas Osmeña suggesting that Rama, his VM at the time, step down as Sinulog chairman to make the City’s donation to SFI not an irregular expense.

That may also be said now about Mayor Edgar Labella who heads the Sinulog Governing Board (SGB) that supervises and controls the Sinulog Foundation. The same ban probably applies with more force this year because two officials of Sinulog, the fund receiver, are also officials (the top honchos no less) of the City Government, the fund giver.

Rama disclosed the roundabout way of spending the Sinulog fund aid apparently to reinforce his argument against the creation of SGB: What checks and balances does the governing board aim to promote when SFI does not touch the cash?

That hoists anew the issue of Mayor Labella, a public official, overseeing and controlling the operations of a private foundation through the SGB created by his executive order.

COA safeguards

If City Hall’s concern is over City funds donated by the LGU to the Sinulog, there are enough safeguards laid down by COA on release of funds assistance to NGOs.

Under its memo-circular 95-003 of Feb. 15, 1995, as amended by MC #96-003 of Feb. 27, 1996, there’s a whole lot of requirements that include auditing and liquidation report. What can be more independent than the COA in watching over the money? To be sure, COA is more independent than Rama and Labella who, as SFI and SGB officials, straddle two interests: the City’s and Sinulog’s.

For years, the public has relied on government regulations to safeguard the Sinulog expenditures. It was the officials concerned who have brought the question to the public forum.

It will help city residents if City Hall will shed light on murky areas of the Sinulog funding mechanism, the relations between the LGU and the two private groups that manage the festival and how SGB and SFI will actually work together.

The public has not seen SFI’s MOA with the City, which COA requires. And SGB officials say one thing and, after the vice mayor complains, the mayor says another.