Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cabanatuan HUC plebiscite set November 8

CABANATUAN CITY, Nueva Ecija – After two postponements spanning three years, the Commission on Elections has set for November 8 the holding of a plebiscite to ratify the conversion of this city into a highly urbanized city (HUC).

          In a four-page resolution approved by the Comelec En Banc, the poll body gave the go-signal for the plebiscite with all 1,360,508 registered voters of Nueva Ecija to participate in the exercise.

          City election officer Leonardo Navarro said the resolution was signed by Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. and Commissioners Al Parreno, Arthur Lim, Christian Robert Lim, Luie Tito Guia and Lucenito Tagle.

          It came after the Supreme Court directed the Comelec to hold the plebiscite after ruling that all registered voters in the province should vote, granting a petition for certiorari filed by Nueva Ecija Gov. Aurelio Umali seeking to stop two earlier Comelec resolutions setting the dates for the conduct of the plebiscite on December 1,2012 and January 25,2014 but with only registered voters of the city allowed to vote.

The bid to convert this city into a HUC, which is being pushed by Umali’s former ally, Mayor Julius Cesar Vergara, is contained in Presidential Proclamation 418 issued on July 4,2012 by President Aquino. However, the proclamation needs to be ratified in a plebiscite.

          Last January, the SC issued a Temporary Restraining Order stopping the Comelec from proceeding with the plebiscite scheduled on January 25. In issuing the TRO, the SC granted the petition of Umali who filed an earlier petition with the Comelec to consider allowing all qualified voters in the province to participate in the plebiscite, not just voters from the city.

The poll body struck down his petition and his motion for reconsideration.

Umali  has argued that Novo Ecijanos will be affected once Cabanatuan becomes HUC and thus, it is imperative for them to participate in the  plebiscite. He said no less than two former SC chief justices – Claudio Teehankee and Reynaldo Puno – have held the view that the political units affected by the plebiscite – Nueva Ecija and Cabanatuan – should participate in the electoral exercise.

“We are not saying the plebiscite should not be allowed. What we are saying is who should be allowed to vote,” he said.

Vergara said that the conversion of the city into a HUC is long overdue and has been supported by senators, among them former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and former senator Aquilino Pimentel who authored the Local Government Code of 1991.  

Umali, a lawyer, said there is already  existing jurisprudence, foremost of which is a July 11,1986 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Tan vs Comelec regarding the creation of a new province of Negros del Norte wherein 2,768.4 square kilometers from the land area of the parent province were to be removed to create a new province whose boundaries would be substantially altered.

          He mentioned the separate concurring opinion of Teehankee stating that to limit the plebiscite to only the areas to be partitioned and seceded from the province is “as absurd and illogical as allowing only the secessionists to vote for the secession that they demanded against the wishes of the majority.”

          Another case in point, he said, was the October 19,1992 ruling in Padilla Jr. vs Comelec which stated that when the law states that the plebiscite shall be conducted in the political units directly affected, it means that residents of the political entity who would be economically dislocated by the separation of a portion thereof have a right to vote in the said plebiscite. “Evidently, what is contemplated by the phrase “political units directly affected,” is the plurality of political units which would participate in the plebiscite,” he stressed, quoting from the ruling.

          Umali said this is not the first time the issue of who should vote in the plebiscite is raised before the Comelec, citing the first case was Antipolo City’s own HUC bid wherein Rizal Gov. Casimiro Ynares III raised the same arguments.         The Law Department of the Comelec, he recalled, found basis in the contention of Ynares and officially opined that the conduct of the plebiscite must include the qualified voters of Rizal.

          He said the Department of Budget and Management has categorically ruled that there will be a substantial decrease in the land area of the province once Cabanatuan becomes a HUC.

The poll body originally set the date of the plebiscite on December 1, 2012 but this was postponed by the issuance of a TRO by the Palayan City Regional Trial Court. Subsequently, the Comelec issued a resolution postponing the plebiscite because of its proximity to the elections.

          On June 28 last year, shortly after Vergara got reelected, he wrote the Comelec asking it to conduct the plebiscite but the poll body said it was forced to defer all actions until after the barangay polls. 

          Vergara’s bid marks the second attempt to turn the city into HUC.  In 1995, Vergara’s predecessor, then-mayor Manolette Liwag pushed for HUC conversion which was subsequently proclaimed by then-President Fidel Ramos.

           However, the move lost badly during the plebiscite, largely due to the opposition of the Josons who were then at the height of their political reign. (Manny Galvez)  

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