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[ Cebu City ] Council seeks House probe


Thursday, August 27, 2009 [ sunstar.com.ph ]

CEBU CITY -- The City Council asked Wednesday the House of Representatives to hold an inquiry and find out why the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) gave free patents for parts of the public domain, including a portion of the Balili property in Naga, Cebu.

In a privilege speech, Councilor Edgardo Labella asked Congress to review the Public Land Act, including all issuances and memoranda given as a result of the law.

Mayor Tomas Osmeña said the Office of the Ombudsman’s investigation on the Balili lot purchase is good enough for him, but he will support a congressional inquiry if that is what the council wants.

“No one consulted me. The Ombudsman is good enough,” he said in a text message sent to Sun.Star Cebu. Osmeña was in Manila since Tuesday.

“Sure, I will go along with it. I don’t mind being the rubber stamp of the City Council but let me caution them that congressman Pablo John Garcia will file a bill to amend the Constitution and make it constitutional to buy land under the sea,” the mayor said.

In separate interviews, Representatives Raul del Mar (Cebu City, north district) and Antonio Cuenco (south) said they will wait to receive the council resolution before deciding whether or not they will support an inquiry.

The council will send House Speaker Prospero Nograles a copy of the request.

Asked to comment on the council’s move, Representative Pablo Garcia (Cebu Province, 2nd district), former governor of Cebu, said: “It’s getting hilarious. It’s a free country; everyone is entitled to his or her own entertainment.”

He believes this is just in retaliation to the province’s announcement that it will file a criminal and administrative case against City Hall officials for the “grossly disadvantageous” joint venture deal with Filinvest Land Inc. for the development of a part of the South Road Properties.

No need

The congressman said there is no need for an inquiry in aid of legislation because the province bought the Balili property on the basis of clean titles.

Sun.Star Cebu tried but failed to reach Governor Gwendolyn Garcia on Wednesday. Her brother, Representative Pablo John Garcia (Cebu Province, 3rd district) pointed out a resolution from a member of the House is needed to begin an inquiry.

The Capitol’s purchase of the P96.9-million Balili property in Tinaan, Naga has hogged headlines in recent weeks, after it surfaced that portions are underwater or covered by mangroves and should not have been titled.

The Capitol is now demanding the return of P37.8 million, equivalent to the submerged portion of the 25-hectare lot. It also ordered an investigation on the purchase.

“The DENR issued free patents to the Balilis on May 18, 1978…(and) the Municipality of Naga classified the property as industrial and recreational,” Labella said, quoting media reports.

“It is the respectful submission of this representation that in the light of the development, there is a need for a congressional inquiry into the matter in order to look into the deficiencies of the law on the titling of lands of public domain for the passage of remedial legislative intervention,” Labella said.

Labella, a former ombudsman director, heads the council committee on laws, ordinances, public accountability and good government.

“Request the House of Representatives to conduct an inquiry in aid of remedial legislation to revisit and reevaluate Commonwealth Act 141 and other issuances related to the titling of public lands,” stated the first resolving clause of his proposed measure.

Cuenco said he will assess the matter objectively, just as he was objective when he decided to support the House inquiry on the city’s joint venture with Filinvest Land Inc.

Cuenco said, though, that the resolution will first have to be forwarded to the House committee on good government, whose members will decide if an inquiry is warranted.

“I can assure you that I will not block any inquiry on the Balili lot purchase. If the committee decides to give it due course, then I will support it,” Cuenco told Sun.Star Cebu.

For his part, del Mar wants to check first if an inquiry is warranted in the case of the Balili lot purchase, since the Lower House’s schedule is already full before their break in October.

Process

Also, through the request of Councilor Gerardo Carillo, the council asked Congress to revisit the procurement process for local government units (LGUs) buying real properties.

Councilor Augustus Pe Jr. also asked for “specific guidelines on how LGUs acquire properties.”

Vice Mayor Michael Rama said that “common sense would tell that there should be due diligence” when buying properties.

In Cebu City, the council must approve a resolution authorizing the mayor to negotiate for the acquisition of a particular property before the executive department starts formal negotiation.

But Labella said the Balili issue is not the first incident where properties that are supposedly “inalienable” are titled in the names of private entities.

“This (Balili lot controversy) is not an isolated case. And the inquiry is not only on the Balili property…. There is a compelling need. There are many controversies involving public lands,” Labella said.

Told that the request may be interpreted as getting back at the Capitol, Labella said this was not on the councilors’ minds when they decided on it during the caucus before the session.

Not ‘retaliation’

“This is more on the DENR, not on the Balili property, because there were already many instances, like the Amari deal, the Freedom Island conflict. There is also the conflict in Tabunan…. Please don’t have the misconception that this is in retaliation,” Labella said.

Also on Wednesday, officials said paying for the Balili property on a 50-50 basis was beneficial to the province because it ensured that all provisions in the contract were followed.

The Commission on Audit (COA) has questioned why the purchase of the Naga property was not supported by the necessary appropriations.

Provincial Budget Office Emme Gingoyon explained there was an appropriation for 50 percent of the entire amount under the Development Fund set aside for site development and a housing program.

This is carried under the Annual Investment Plan, said Provincial Board Member Wenceslao Gakit, chairman of the committee on budget and appropriation.

The rest of the payment for the heirs of Luis Balili in Tina-an, Naga, was included in the supplemental budget.

Provincial Legal Officer Marino Martinquilla and Gakit explained that this was also stated in the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the Province and the Balili heirs.

“In fact, it can be safely said that making partial appropriations and payments are but effective management tools that will assure the Provincial Government that contractors will fully deliver the projects,” read Martinquilla’s explanation to COA. (RHM/LCR/JGA/Sun.Star Cebu)

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