LAST Wednesday, May 3, 2023 -- more than nine months after Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama signed on July 28, 2022 the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance of 2019 -- a media forum organized by the Cebu Citizens-Press Council identified and confirmed the reasons why the work of the City Council and the city mayor on the said ordinance has not yet completed.

Cebu City’s FOI legislative project is in its seventh year, from 2016 when then councilor Joy Daluz filed his first FOI ordinance, which the City Council later passed as City Ordinance (CO) No. 2473 but then mayor Tomas Osmeña vetoed. The project is on its fourth year, if counting from 2019 when then councilor, now Representative Edu Rama filed his version, which was to become the existing FOI ordinance, CO 2657.

Wednesday’s forum at Harold’s Hotel in Cebu City -- organized by Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) in partnership with the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands and Ateneo Center for Journalism -- aimed to focus on the completion of CO 2657 and to see if it could work and how.

Here are post-forum takeaways from the continuing issue:

[1] MAJOR CAUSES. The reasons why work on the FOI ordinance is still incomplete may be summed up thus:

[a] The City Council merely “noted” on February 8, 2023 the list of exceptions submitted to it on January 31, 2033 by the City Legal Office. Obviously required is approval by the City Council, which hasn’t gone beyond acknowledging receipt of the list.

[b] As to an IRRI or implementing rules and regulations, Atty. Chappy Piramide, City Council secretariat chief, requested for one but the City Legal Office (CLO) told her the ordinance doesn’t need an IRR.

[c] Not all the FOI focal officers in 27 departments and offices have been appointed. The office of the mayor, through each department/office chief, appoints the FOI officers.

[2] UNNAMED REASON. Not mentioned during the discussion as additional reason for the incompleteness of the work was that author Edu Rama was already in Congress when the City Council received the CLO’s list of exceptions on Jan. 31, 2023.

No councilor had noticed, or cared, that the ordinance, minus a Sanggunian-approved list of exceptions, was still incomplete. No executive official had pushed for designating and training FOI lead persons. Councilor Gealon appears to have adopted the Edu Rama ordinance only lately.

But then, missing out on key aspects of an ordinance is not new. The City Council at times would go on correction mode, to remedy lapses in an ordinance. The Carbon Market joint venture agreement stands as a glaring, obtrusive example.

[3] TEMPLATE FROM DILG. The ordinance signed by Councilor Rama was apparently lifted from a template of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) that made it as part of then president Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign for transparency and against corruption. With the PCOO or Presidential Communications Operations Office, DILG campaigned in October 2018 for local governments to adopt the FOI ordinance in their respective LGUs.

That could be why the local lawmakers didn’t include two provisions CCPC requested in January 2020 to be inserted in the ordinance, foremost of which was that the ordinance shouldn’t be used as excuse for delaying the release of a document not listed in the exceptions inventory. Atty. Eddie Barrita, who joined with Atty. Poblete as forum reactor, said access to information of public interest should go on as usual. The FOI shouldn’t be used as excuse for impeding the flow of news from City Hall. Barrita, Carcar city attorney, like Poblete, is a member of Cebu Media Legal Aid (Cemla).

[4] WHY MAYOR’S OFFICE WASN’T IN FORUM. The mayor’s office executes the ordinances the City Council passed.

Thus for the May 3 forum, CCPC invited from City Hall Cerwin T. Eviota of the mayor’s “communication strategy” staff and Estela Grace “Jing Kee” Rosit, who succeeded Eviota as public information officer, and would be the chief focal person under the ordinance, tasked to “oversee implementation and develop standards” for submitting requests for information.

After the April 25, 2023 “gag order” from the city administrator, CCPC sent a letter request to Mayor Rama, asking that he allow Eviota and Rosit to join the May 3 forum.

City Hall reps could’ve helped tell the public what can be done to get the ordinance ready for implementation and more, such as clarify the alleged ban on department and office officials to “declare anything” in public. They didn’t show up, with Cerwin informing CCPC, at 9 a.m. of May 3 or four hours before the forum, his having been afflicted with arthritis and Jing Ke having production work. The representative/s -- whom Cerwin and City Administrator Collin Rosell were asked by CCPC to send -- also didn’t come. Instead, Eviota suggested another forum in the future, to which he, CA Rosell and the city legal officer may be invited.

[5] AMENDMENT FOR EXCEPTIONS? Does it require an amendment just to adopt the CLO’s list of exceptions? Atty. Jose Marie Poblete, Banat columnist, Carcar City administrator and one of the reactors, said the City Council may adopt the exceptions and indicate them in the ordinance if amended. He said the list of exceptions was already “incorporated by reference” in the ordinance. The order to the CLO to prepare the list may only be to facilitate the inventory.

Yet the exceptions may still set off some discussion, if brought to the City Council anew, as the list is a crucial part of the ordinance. If the City Council will tackle the exceptions list as an amendment, it may no longer take the same route the main ordinance traveled. Lawyer-columnist Frank Malilong asked in his May 5, 2023 SunStar column, “That may take what, another nine months?” Maybe not.

[6] GEALON’S PROMISE. Councilor Rey Gealon, chairman of the City Council’s committee on laws and forum principal speaker, said he’d raise to the mayor the next day (May 4, 2023) a request for the appointment of all 27 FOI focal officers, one for each department and office at City Hall. It wasn’t clear how many FOI reps were designated but at the forum Councilor Gealon “confirmed” that no FOI officer had yet been appointed. Explainer though learned there were some designations already done.

As to possible amendments, Gealon said, he’ll consult stakeholders, as he said he always does on all ordinances he sponsors.

[7] NOT NEEDED, A ‘SURPLUSAGE’? Could Cebu media do without an FOI ordinance? It could, relying on existing law and the Constitution, but only if public officials don’t ever abuse their power to withhold or delay release of information contained in documents.

The FOI ordinance would be a recourse, a last resort, if oral or less formal requests wouldn’t do. The national government encouraged LGUs to “operationalize” in their level the concept of freedom of information, which then president Rodrigo Duterte mandated under Executive Order No. 2 on July 23, 2016 among national departments, bureaus and agencies but not among LGUs.

The Constitution is the broad authority, the source of the right. The FOI ordinance is the way that right to information may be asserted, if denied, in one’s own community. Reporters covering City Hall polled by Cebu City News and Information in July 2022 welcomed the ordinance, seeing easier access to information. Their editors welcomed it too; one was wary though about the exceptions, which at the time were still undisclosed. []