Seares: The other puzzler in Sinulog dispute: SFI doesn’t handle City Hall fund

Pachico A. Seares

SINULOG Foundation Inc. (SFI) runs the Sinulog festivity. It has been doing so for decades now. SFI is a private foundation, a non-government organization.

Here’s proof that it is an NGO:

[1] It is registered with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) as a private foundation.

[2] It is regarded by the government as an NGO. Thus, according to COA rules, it cannot lawfully receive direct donation of funds from City Hall or any other government unit. The ban was disclosed by Vice Mayor Mike Rama during a budget hearing Monday, Nov. 18.

Oversight job

But then SFI appears to be considered by Mayor Edgar Labella as an agency of the City Government. Last Aug. 23, he created by executive order a mayor-led Sinulog Governing Board (SGB) to serve as “regulatory board” that “oversees” SFI and its executive committee. Since SFI is an NGO, why must City Hall supervise its operations, with a special “governing” body no less?

The mayor must worry about the money it spends for Sinulog each year.

How funds are spent

But the fund doesn’t go directly to SFI. VM Rama clarified that in his disclosure. That is an eye-opener which raises anew the question about SFI’s legal personality and SGB’s “meddling” with foundation functions.

Rama said SFI cannot accept directly the allotted P35 million from the City Government under COA rules, a ban enforced since 2009. It seems they’ve gone around the prohibition by having City Hall “pay for activities and items” requested by SFI. It doesn’t touch the money but tells City Hall what to buy or pay it for.

‘What checks & balances?’

Anyway, Rama now uses the argument to boost his opposition to the creation of the Sinulog Governing Board, whose major purpose, Mayor Edgar Labella had said, is to serve as checks-and-balances on SFI as fundraiser and fund spender.

What checks-and-balances, an “offended” Rama asked: “no such thing... no balance to be checked.” Or is it, “no checks to be balanced” since, according to Councilor Raymond Garcia, City Council committee on finance chairman, City Hall hasn’t been paying out checks to SFI for 10 years now.

Rama though may have limited the idea of “checks and balances” to oversight on cash. The term may cover other forms of spending as well as the use of resources derived from outside City Hall, such as donations and sponsorships from commercial firms. Oversight by SGB may include decisions on the use of city facilities for the festival.

Tighter audit

Rama’s disclosure about the COA ban brings into full glare of public light this question: What is the City Government doing with a private organization such as the SFI? Checks and balances do not apply between a government entity and a private group.

COA and SEC regard SFI as a non-government organization. The City Council recognizes that by not donating funds directly to SFI.

If the mayor is worried over how its P35 million or so annual spending for the festival, it can require rigid accounting to the public from SFI side and tighter control on City Hall spending requested by the foundation.

Politics as factor

What we have is a situation where on one hand, the government views the foundation as a private entity but on the other hand, City Hall regards SFI as its creation that is subject to its supervision and control.

The public must be confused why the oversight on SFI when (1) it is a private foundation and (2) City Hall, not SFI, handles and disburses the money it pays for Sinulog activities.

What cannot be ruled out in the controversy is that Sinulog, a massive crowd-drawer that it is, arouses proprietary instincts of elective officials at City Hall whose interests clash now or may collide in a future election.