Lawmaker defends Baguio City charter changes

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Friday, January 25, 2013


REPRESENTATIVE Bernardo Vergara has defended House Bill 3759, which seeks to revise the 1909 Baguio City Charter, and expressed concern on the supposed socioeconomic and political benefits of resolving the city’s land use problems.

This came after President Benigno Aquino III vetoed what Vergara thinks could have been a measure to speed up the process of titling alienable and disposable lands and solve Baguio City’s problems on land use.

He said that after more than a year and six months of convincing legislators to approve the measure starting from congressional hearings to the bicameral committee sessions, moves to change the charter dating back to the American colonial period has been ongoing for the past 12 years led by then Representative Mauricio Domogan, now city mayor.

“Our constituents have long dreamt of finally having the opportunity to acquire a land lot of their own. With the revised charter vetoed, now that dream remains a dream. Our task continues to have this dream remain alive in their hearts,” he said.

Initially, the charter amendment focuses on four essential objectives: the settlement of the city’s boundary dispute with the adjoining municipality of Tuba, Benguet; to effectively implement the land use development plan of the City of Baguio; to rationalize the disposition of alienable and disposable public lands that are part of the city’s Townsite Reservation, and such other similar lands which, as part of National Reservations, have been re-classified; and to develop genuine and meaningful political, social and fiscal autonomy for the City Government toward sustainable development anchored on self-reliance and effective partnership for national goals.

Aquino, in his explanatory letter addressed to House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte and members of the House of Representatives, said that much of the buck focused mostly on the disposition of alienable and disposable lands and revenues government may derive from the sale of these public lands.

But Vergara disagreed, saying the President’s decision “may have been grounded on erroneous appreciation of things.”

Upon reviewing the grounds of the presidential veto, the legislator stressed the bill does not breach on existing national laws.

“Nowhere is it provided in the charter measure that the city acquires control and disposition of alienable and disposable lands. Under section 35 of this measure, the DENR retains this residual authority through an inter-agency committee headed by the DENR secretary, lands management director and the Bgauio city mayor as member,” he said.

Vergara explained that the bill only seeks to correct a long-standing process in the disposition of lands in Baguio City, the only city in the country that has townsite reservations. The tedious process has created a backlog of some 5,000 townsite sales applications yet to be settled.

“Applicants have grown old or have died, indicating how tedious and heart-breaking the processing of townsite sales applications has become,” he said.

He also contended Aquino’s view that proceeds from land sales should accrue to the national treasury, emphasizing this disputed provision “merely continues a long standing administrative process enforced by the DENR allowing Baguio to retain and use proceeds from the disposal and sale of townsite reserved lots.”

Vergara maintained the President might have overlooked his interpretation that the bill violates the Bases Conversion and Development Act, stressing “a lack of understanding in the land resources in Baguio.”

He said BCDA assets, including former American facility Camp John Hay, are not alienable and disposable lands, which mean the charter “cannot by law interfere in the disposition of public properties owned by the BCDA.”

He also stressed the Local Government Code does not solve delineations among disputing local governments such as Tuba and Baguio.

Vergara added the proposed charter would have legitimized a land swap arrangement between Baguio and Tuba, settling decades-old dispute correcting the city’s territory from 49 square kilometers as specified in the century-old charter to 57 square kilometers, adding some eight additional kilometers of land that may be utilized for public use and socialized housing.

The lawmaker is unsure whether to pursue the measure for another round in the future.

After all, the move for the amendment of the City Charter did not start from the representative but from Mayor Domogan who penned the measure during his stint in Congress but was also faced with the same early setback of the tedious process of congressional hearings.

Domogan has time and again stressed the need for charter change, stressing the thousands of pending townsite reservation applications have been subjected to land speculation and squatting.

The mayor emphasized the Environment secretary who administers these public lands has been busy with other functions and the charter change could have been the answer to fast-tracking the extensive process of legitimizing these titles.

With this recent setback, the City Government is now faced with squatting and land speculation problems relying solely on the titling committee and causing the city’s enduring problems on illegal squatters and speculators.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on January 26, 2013.

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