THE ANNOUNCEMENT. At a Cebu City Hall press conference Thursday (May 18, 2023) about the impending water supply crisis, Mayor Mike Rama's two key assistants Jerone Castillo and City Administrator Collin Rosell announced the replacement of Jose Daluz III as MCWD board chairman.

The disclosure capped discussion about preparations for an expected shortage of water supply: from increase of funds to measures to reduce ill effects of El Niño on water consumers and farmers needing water for their crops. Mayor Mike Rama prefaced the talk on preparedness for the forecast drought but left the press-con for another engagement, after dropping a hint for reporters to ask about MCWD.

Daluz's demotion at the MCWD board easily eclipsed the water crisis as a story. Not helping clarify things on social media was the charge in the Facebook post of former city administrator Floro Casas Jr. on the same day. Casas said the mayor's action was "legally and morally wrong."

Among the things people need to know about the controversy:

[1] IS DALUZ ACTUALLY REPLACED? To Mayor Rama and Attys. Castillo and Rosell, Daluz -- a former city councilor who led the 2019 Barug campaign of the late mayor Edgardo Labella and supported the 2022 Barug bid of Mayor Rama -- is no longer the MCWD chairman. Vice chairman Miguelito Pato was already "installed" as board chief by the mayor.

Atty. Daluz disagrees. In an official statement Friday afternoon, May 19, 2023, he declared, "I have continued to fulfill my responsibilities" as current chairman of the MCWD board of directors. Until he'll received "an official notice from the board, I will remain in my position and will continue to serve the people of Cebu."

Did the board already meet to install Daluz's replacement, as the mayor's office announced? The MCWD board, I learned from a source who knows about these matters, indeed met on the same day and about the same time the City Hall press-con was being held, which was on Thursday, May 18, 2023. All the five directors, including then chairman Daluz, were present. Daluz didn't preside, Engr. Pato did but here's the more crucial point: there was no mention of any change of chairman ("wala gyud removal, walay movement ang board").

There is yet no date set for the next meeting.

Why didn't Daluz preside at the last board meeting? He's used to letting the vice chairman preside, my source said. There were "several instances" in the past when then vice chairman Atty. Frank Malilong presided, instead of Daluz himself.

[2] 'SUBJECT TO LEGAL FORMALITIES.' More than once, that condition was attached to the press-con announcement of Daluz's "removal" as MCWD board chairman.

Could it mean due process, the lack of which was cited as one of the legal flaws when then mayor Labella, on October 15, 2019, sacked all five MCWD directors, namely, chairman Joel Mari Yu, VC Ralph Sevilla, secretary Cecilia Jugao-Adlawan and members Procopio Fernandez and Augustus Pe Jr. The five were all appointees of Labella's predecessor Tomas Osmeña Jr. On March 15, 2021, the Regional Trial Court, where they raised their case, ordered the reinstatement of Sevilla, Adlawan and Pe.

What legal formalities are required after Daluz's supposed diminution in rank was done? That wasn't asked or explained at the press-con. How was the replacement even done? In Labella's action in 2019, he sent "notices of termination" to the five directors. None was served on Daluz: as of Friday morning, May 19, 2023, he sounded on Brigada's radio commentary program as if he were still the MCWD chairman, thanking the board for "its support." He thinks he still is, per his official statement.

If the "legal formalities" were still to come, how about the basic act of firing him as chairman, was it still to come too?

[3] THE LEGALITY OF IT. Atty. Casas believes Mayor Rama has no authority to remove Daluz even as chairman. Casas told me Friday (May 19, 2023), "It was the board that appointed Atty. Joey as chairman; thus only the board can remove him." "The demotion itself is illegal, due to MLR's lack of authority, thus no formalities are needed."

If there would be any formality, Daluz said, maybe it should be "the vote of the board to remove Atty. Joey in a meeting called for the purpose."

But then perhaps that's what the mayor and his lawyers are thinking about when they talk of "legal formalities": the mayor may use his influence, if not authority, on the directors to vote for a new chairman; after all, he gave them the job and put them there.

Or the directors may resist the mayor's move as they have security of tenure of sort.

Chairman Daluz's and VC Pato's term expires only on December 31, 2024; secretary Jodelyn May Seno's, on December 31, 2026; and Atty. Earl Bonachita's and Danilo Ortiz's, on December 31, 2028.

[4] AUTONOMY FOR WATER DISTRICTS. A January 10, 2019 memorandum circular (#2019-03) of the Department of the Interior and Local Government repeats DILG's 2016 policy on "operational autonomy" of local water districts (MC#2016-146).

That policy has been used to shoo away politicians from the operations of water districts that serve towns and cities. Water districts such as MCWD are "autonomous agencies independent of local governments. It should be best, the DILG memo says, that they "are allowed to operate with the least hindrance and interference from the local officials but with the maximum support and assistance."

This seems to be the position of the mayor's critics on the Daluz issue: The mayor can hire MCWD directors but cannot fire any one of them. He can only file a complaint with the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA). He cannot replace the board chairman; only the board can.

[5] WHY MLR ACTED. Attys. Castillo and Rosell listed a number of reasons for the ouster of Daluz as chairman, topped by "unsatisfactory preparation" for El Niño and the September 2022 complaints filed with the Visayas Ombudsman by 380 MCWD employees. A more immediate trigger to the firing: Daluz didn't show up at an emergency meeting this week (May 16) to discuss the feared drought.

Compare that with Labella's reason in firing the entire board in 2019: "widespread customer dissatisfaction," citing complaints on MCWD service by LGUs Cebu City, Mandaue City and Talisay City and the towns of Consolacion, Liloan, Compostela, Cordova, among the towns of Cebu Province.

Mayor Rama, his key officials also disclosed, was prompted by the Ombudsman's sending of the MCWD employees' complaint against Daluz to the mayor for "appropriate action." Casas disagreed with that theory, saying the union's letter was originally addressed to the mayor. Even then, Casas said, "appropriate action" is limited by what the law only allows.

[6] WHAT'S THE DEPARTMENT HEADS' BUSINESS? Atty. Casas questioned the authority of the mayor or the City Hall department heads to remove Daluz as chairman. Casas asked: "Unsay labot sa City Hall department heads sa MCWD," a GOCC or government-owned or -controlled corporation?

Atty. Castillo said it is the governance style of the mayor to confer with his key officials, thus the consultations with department heads and a "work group" in the office of the mayor. His point apparently: the people the mayor consults merely advise; the final decider is the mayor himself. But the mayor, Atty. Casas said, was purportedly among the four who voted not to replace Daluz, against 13 others who voted for his removal. Thus, the decision to ax Daluz was based on the voting, not on the mayor's personal conviction.

[7] POLITICS AS MOTIVE. Casas, in his May 18 FB post, asked, "Is the mayor afraid that Atty. Joey Daluz will challenge him in the 2025 mayoralty race? Sayo pa man mamolitika ron, especially that El Niño is coming and MCWD needs to focus on preparations."

Does Atty. Casas have any solid basis for that? "Just speculation," he told me.