WHAT HAPPENED. A proposal of Councilor Jocelyn Pesquera, majority floor leader, to appropriate the initial amount of P2 million for free coffins and pauper’s burial in Cebu City was approved Wednesday, October 20. The ordinance will amend the existing ordinance by increasing outlay per coffin from P2,000 to P10,000.

It drew the usual comments from the opposition during the discussion, as chiefly articulated by Minority Floor Leader Nestor Archival Sr. The passage of the appropriation illustrates once again how the majority has tightened its control of the Sangguniang Panglungsod and how the minority has barely kept its head above the water on legislative matters.

BARUG RULES. The opposition in the City Council is Bando Osmeña-Pundok Kauswagan (BOPK), led by veteran Councilor Archival.

Barug won 12 seats and minority BOPK only four in the May elections. Even with two more votes from holdover barangay and youth sectors – Councilors Franklyn Ong and Jessica Resch who are avowed BOPKs despite the non-partisan label on their seats -- still gives Barug 13 (with the vice mayor as plus-one, in case of a tie in voting) against BOPK’s six (with ABC and SK reps as plus-two).

A majority of six votes in case of a divisions of the House is lopsided dominance by Barug, topped with “insurance” of a presiding officer who can tip the scale in Barug’s favor in the extraordinary event of a tie vote.

Any opposition mounted against a proposal from the majority comes with one “given” fact: if it comes to a vote, Barug wins, BOPK loses.

BOPK/ARCHIVAL CARD. Last Wednesday’s approval of Pesquera’s amendatory ordinance showed the helplessness of the opposition in curbing the administration’s spending, which was nothing new since the part of the 15th Sanggunian under “accession mayor” Michael Rama already showed that.

But while the majority Barug has tightened its grip on the City Council by its ban on direct grilling of resource persons, the opposition BOPK still has to improve its strategy in its moves to “fiscalize” the administration.

The BOPK card, as used by Archival, has had few changes since Barug wrested control of the mayor’s office and the Sanggunian after the 2019 election and kept that dominance after the 2022 polls.

The opposition theme with little variation, as expressed in Archival’s pronouncements and moves:

[1] The City Government is “always givin (away)” cash aid, land: “Sige ta’g panghatag,” as reaction to crises, with little information on effectiveness and future prevention, often with no master plan or overall policy.

[2] The City is cash-strapped and has been on deficit-spending in 2020 and 2021.

[3] Appropriations are not supported with data and numbers. On the free coffins and pauper’s burial assistance, Archival deplored there were no figures on deaths in a year, how many benefited in a given period, which is more practical for the City, making the coffins itself or buying them, what the cash aid covered, and the like.

[4] Lump-sum outlays, with no specifics on unit cost and requirements.

[5] Projects and tasks are not time-bound. Archival is known to be appeased by setting deadlines for completion of work the Sanggunian wants to be done.

[6] Proposals don’t have the supporting documents: not provided by the author or not attached to the proposal circulated among the councilors. “It’s not among the things I got” is often heard during the debate. Or: “It will come later. Anyway, we’re just approving a report.”

COUNCIL’S LACK OF INFORMATION. It is obvious that discussion of an issue before the City Council is often hobbled by lack of, or contradictory, information. At times, even the most basic facts are not known by councilors.

Last August 19, they couldn’t determine how much was the balance of the disaster fund: P201 million or P8 million? Last August 11, they decided to ask the mayor’s office to inform them on the action on some 2,500 resolutions they pass each year. They passed those resolutions and wouldn’t know if they made any difference.

They would suspect an irregularity, ask for data from the office concerned and don’t get the information or get the runaround. They had been asking for a summary of expenses of the city’s anti-Covid response, didn’t get what they wanted, and when the Commission on Audit (COA) report came out, they didn’t know how to use it.

To watchers of the Sanggunian sessions, the groping for information is dismaying. They have a committee on laws and the city legal office, to see to it that the ordinance or resolution does not violate the Constitution and the laws. They don’t have a committee on facts to get solid information on which each proposed measure must be based. Each councilor-author is supposed to do that and each committee to which it is referred is supposed to do that. But from the discussion en banc, it’s not done. That, despite the staff that each councilor is supposed to have.

HURTS OPPOSITION MORE. Inadequacy of facts hurts the opposition more, as they need basis for questioning a proposal. The opposition relies mostly on the information it gets during the discussion. Thus, Councilor Archival is known to file several corollary motions to seek information from offices and departments. What is not known is whether he got them and what he did with the information he got.

Needless to say, vacuum of information benefits the administration, as it can push its projects through with meager scrutiny from “fiscalizers.” Opposition demand for process and supporting data is quelled by “will-follow” promises or the urgency of the measure.

‘BIPARTISAN’ FRONT ON INQUIRIES. Most requests for documents and testimonial information are in the name of the City Council: a collective action, even if moved by an individual councilor. There’s therefore an appearance of bipartisanship.

The majority’s concession to the minority may be explained by the common wish for public relations image of legislators wanting to get the facts and know the truth: transparency and disclosure. Besides, why bar the request when it can be ignored or dodged by the source of the information. And when things come to a head, the majority controls the vote.

Thus, the secretariat’s record will show bipartisan request or demand for information on issues potentially harmful to the administration. The August 5 decision of the City Council for a full-blown inquiry by the NBI and COA into the “illegal or overpaid” P348 to P400 million garbage disposal contract was a City Council action with a unanimous vote.

BAN ON GRILLING OF GUESTS. Barug has firmed up its control of the City Council proceedings by banning direct questioning of resource persons – except during a public hearing or in an executive session – and thus closed one stage where the public can watch the players directly. Remember that invited guest who dared the Sanggunian to tell all about what he knew directly and personally in a case of corruption at City Hall? Neither the City Council, including the opposition, or any other official picked up the issue afterwards.

Early last July, Councilor Archival moved to invite the city markets chief to a session so she could be asked about a disruption of a mass at Carbon Market. The ban stopped him, converting his motion to a request for written answer to his questions. It’s not known how the department head responded and whether it provided the information Archival wanted. The open session, live-streamed and recorded for YouTube viewing, would’ve given public access to the proceeding.

The ban works one way. The majority could have direct questioning of a resource person by simply mustering the two-thirds vote for the lifting of House rules, which the opposition couldn’t do on its own.

THE ODDS ARE STACKED against the opposition, with Councilor Archival appearing to be the last man standing for BOPK, with only occasional help from party colleagues Mary Ann de los Santos, Joy Young and newbie Jose Abellanosa and sectoral reps “non-partisan” Ong and Resch.