Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Comelec cancels November 8 plebiscite on Cabanatuan HUC-hood due to fund lack

CABANATUAN CITY, Nueva Ecija–The Commission on Elections has cancelled the  holding of a November 8 plebiscite to ratify the conversion of this city into a Highly Urbanized City (HUC), the third such cancellation in as many years.

          Sitting En Banc, the Comelec issued Minute Resolution 14-0732 dated October 21 - and released November 4 - cancelling the November 8 plebiscite and resetting it to a later date.

          The resolution was signed by Commissioners Lucenito Tagle, Christian Robert Lim, Luie Tito Guia, Elias Yusoph, Al Parreno and Arthur Lim.

          Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. was on official business at the time of the signing of the resolution although his signature appeared on the document, apparently as a belated signatory.

          In issuing the resolution, the Comelec approved the recommendation of deputy executive director for operations Bartolome Sinocruz Jr. that the new date will be finalized upon the receipt of the certificate of availability of funds from the city government.

          A total of P100.9 million is needed for the conduct of the plebiscite, of which P47.5 million is to be remitted to the Comelec.

          City treasurer Florida Oca said the city government cannot provide yet the required certificate of availability of funds.  

          Sinocruz, in a memorandum directed provincial election supervisor Panfilo Doctor and Cabanatuan election officer Leonardo Navarro to implement the resolution.   

          Doctor and Navarro both declared that if not for the postponement, they are ready to hold the plebiscite which will involve all 1,360,508 registered voters in Nueva Ecija instead of just this city.

          “We are prepared insofar as our records are concerned,” Doctor said by phone.

Navarro said that as early as January, the Comelec Cabanatuan office has been 100 percent ready for the plebiscite but the Supreme Court stopped them from proceeding with it through its issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO).

The HUC is contained in Presidential Proclamation 418 issued on July 4,2012 by President Aquino. For the process to be complete, the proclamation needs to be ratified in a plebiscite.

The issue has led to the bitter parting of ways of former political allies, Gov. Aurelio Umali and Mayor Julius Cesar Vergara. Umali is opposed to the conversion which Vergara, a former classmate of President Aquino, is pushing to make Cabanatuan a separate political subdivision.  

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 the two politicians were reelected, Vergara 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. 

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 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.

Last January, the SC issued the TRO stopping the Comelec from proceeding with the plebiscite scheduled on January 25. The Comelec, last September then scheduled the plebiscite for November 8.    

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.

Vergara said that the conversion of the city into a HUC is long overdue and has been supported by legal experts, 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, one of which 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.

          He 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.

          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, Cabanatueños rejected its ratification, largely due to the objections of the Josons who were then at the height of their political reign. (Manny Galvez)

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