QUESTIONS on neutrality of hearing venue led the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to postpone the first day of the formal investigation of the administrative case filed by Labangon Barangay Captain Vic Buendia against suspended Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama.
The marathon hearings were supposed to start yesterday at 2 p.m. in the conference room of the office of Vice Mayor Edgardo Labella, who is now acting mayor.
However, Buendia along with his legal counsels, headed by lawyer Benjamin Militar, refused to appear at the venue, which was at the ground floor of the legislative building.
His camp, along with Buendia’s supporters, went to the City Council’s caucus room instead, which was on the fourth floor of the same building.
“We have strong objection (to the venue). They (Rama’s lawyers) have been complaining about the lack of neutrality of the DILG 7, yet we will be at the vice mayor’s office. Rama’s lawyers are lawyers of the law firm of Labella. How can that be neutral?” Militar told DILG hearing officer Isidro Barrios who met with them at the caucus room to know why they refuse to go down.
Militar said those who are part of Labella’s law firm are City Legal Office Chief Jerone Castillo and former City Hall lawyer Floro Casas.
Buendia’s lawyers said that the vice mayor’s office is not an “impartial venue.”
Aside from that, Militar said they did not receive a notice from the DILG that the venue will be at the vice mayor’s conference room. What they were told, he said, was that the hearing will only be at the City Hall.
During the preliminary conference last month, both parties agreed to transfer the hearings for the case from the DILG 7 office in Barangay Lahug to some place else after the agency’s integrity was questioned by Rama’s camp.
This, after DILG 7 legal officer Aiza Fiel Nogra, who is part of the investigating body, was seen making discussions with the lawyers of Buendia and made suggestions to them about their next move.
Barrios explained to Militar that it was the DILG, through Nogra and DILG Cebu City Director Danilo Almendras, who arranged the venue yesterday.
After learning about the pronouncements of Militar, Castillo told Barrios later that it was Militar who even suggested that the hearing will be held at City Hall.
He said the order by DILG was that the venue will be at the vice mayor’s conference room.
Castillo went on to say that no acts of biases should be imputed against them, saying they were not the ones talking with anyone about their next move for the case, apparently referring to the incident with Nogra.
“We don’t like drama. We abide by the order,” he said, adding that they were already at the venue as early as 2 p.m.
Castillo went on to point out that lawyer Reymelio Delute, the other legal counsel of Buendia, was already at the venue but went out and never came back.
Delute, when asked about this, said he was only “misled” by Rama’s lawyers so he went with them to the conference room.
To resolve the matter, Barrios called the hearing in order yesterday at the conference room, in the absence of Buendia’s camp.
He then suggested that the hearing will be temporarily held at the DILG office until a “neutral venue” will be identified.
It was earlier suggested that the hearing be held at the Ecotech also in Lahug, but the facility’s function rooms weren’t available.
After a few discussions, Rama’s lawyers yielded to hold the hearings at the caucus room since they no longer want to go back to DILG 7.
Barrios then said that what happened was just “miscommunication” between the concerned parties.
To make up for the time they lost yesterday, Barrios said that after today’s half-day hearing, a whole-day hearing will be conducted tomorrow until Thursday.
The DILG only has until Feb. 9 to wrap up all its administrative investigations against elected officials.
The Local Government Code provides that no administrative proceedings against elected officials should be held 90 days prior to the elections. This year’s polls is scheduled on May 9.