Seares: Cebu City Council House rules limit number of topics but keep executive sessions closed to public. Kons Joy Pesquera says people can later 'peruse' session minutes. Did City Council get Local Government Code right?

CEBU. Cebu City Councilors Joy Pesquera (left) and Nestor Archival Sr. (center), and cover of the Local Government Code. (SunStar File)
CEBU. Cebu City Councilors Joy Pesquera (left) and Nestor Archival Sr. (center), and cover of the Local Government Code. (SunStar File)

THE House Rules that the Cebu City Council approved at its inaugural session last July 5, 2023 limits to three items or subjects in the agenda of an executive session "to ensure that each item receives sufficient attention and discussion, and guarantee that discussions and decisions are not rushed." But, as before, the executive session is closed to the public and, unlike regular sessions, the proceeding is not live-streamed.

Majority Floor Leader Jocelyn Pesquera said the reduction of the number of agenda items is the only provision added to the House rules regarding the conduct of an executive session. Aside from the reason cited in the amendment, Pesquera told her colleagues in the July 5 session, it would also be unfair to the invited persons who "have to wait for two hours or even have their talk rescheduled because of time constraint."

ARCHIVAL'S COMPLAINT. Minority Floor Leader Nestor Archival Sr. had raised the matter of "transparency," saying the executive session "for so many years" has not been open to the public.

Besides, out of the 36 executive sessions conducted in the 16th Sanggunian's first year, Archival said, he couldn't "find any executive session" whose subject or topic the public should not know about: "Everything here the public should know."

PESQUERA JUSTIFIES. Councilor Pesquera justified the practice of executive sessions, thus:

[] It has been always been so, even in previous councils, the executive session "is always a closed session, except when (the City Council) decides to invite the public."

[] There may be "sensitive matters" the City Council will tackle, which "the public need not know."

[] A record of what takes place in the executive session -- its "result," as "indicated" in its minutes -- is included in the regular session's agenda, which the public "can peruse."

On Archival's complaint that only a few councilors attend an executive session, isn't that the absentee councilors' fault? Pesquera said each councilor sends a representative "to record everything" to prepare for the discussion on any resolution that may arise from the session.

Asked by Councilor Franklyn Ong, Joy Pesquera said executive assistants (EAs) of councilors "can attend" -- although under the House rules, EAs are not mentioned among those allowed admission (see below). Atty. Chappy Piramide, secretariat chief, confirmed about the right of EAs to watch and listen for their principals and yes, she told me Monday, July 17, "executive sessions are closed-door meetings."

As a concession to the minority, apparently offered during recess, Pesquera amended the first paragraph of the House rules on executive sessions, which would've said, "When the Sanggunian decides to hold an executive session, the presiding officer shall direct the galleries and hallways to be cleared and doors closed." She changed "shall" to "may," which may give little comfort to BOPKs as Vice Mayor Raymond Alvin Garcia belongs to majority Barug.

NO SHUTOUT, JUST DELAY. From Pesquera's pronouncement, there is no withholding of information about what is said or done in an executive session. The release is just delayed as the public can still read the minutes of the session from the secretariat.

Here's the thing though: (a) The delay can last several days, as the minutes and resume of an executive session are not immediately released after the session, as it takes time for the secretariat to process them. Besides, they're incorporated with the agenda of the next session and not released separately.

(b) Something could be missed or mistaken in the transcription. Or people can never see them at all -- unless media would report it, which media might not because of lack of resources or plain neglect.

(c) The agenda containing minutes of the executive session is generally released only to City Council members and/or their staff and, most probably, others requesting for them. It's not certain if there's a release to the general public, such as through the Public Information Office or the secretariat's Facebook page.

(d) The video, of course, is not streamed but it's not known if it's released to coincide with the release of the next-session agenda to the City Council members.

WHO CAN GET IN. The provision in the Sanggunian House rules (Section 3, Article 1) doesn't provide for the manner of calling for an executive session. Aside for the added paragraph on the limit to the topics or subjects, a whole paragraph is devoted to the restriction on admission. Only the secretary to the Sanggunian, the sergeant-at-arms, and other persons "specifically authorized by the Sanggunian" shall be admitted to the executive session, the paragraph says.

DID THEY MISREAD LOCAL GOVERNMENT CODE? The City Council House rules provide in its Section 5 that "its sessions, except on executive session, shall be open to the public." But it stops there. It does not restate the part of the law about executive sessions, found in Section 52 (c), under the chapter on "Local Legislation," Local Government Code (Republic Act #7160 of 1991).

That law, to which the City Council House rules must conform to, provides thus:

"All Sanggunian sessions shall be open to the public unless a closed-door session is ordered by an affirmative vote of a majority of the members present, there being a quorum, IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST OR FOR REASONS OF SECURITY, DECENCY OR MORALITY."

The context of the condition (capitalized above for emphasis) must tell legislators to use their best discretion in choosing to exclude the public from a City Council session. Is it "in the public interest" that the citizens must not share with the information; are their rights or liabilities not affected?

MAJORITY RULES. Councilor Pesquera raised this defense: the subject at an executive session is "sensitive." Sensitive to whom or what, would that fall under the phrase "in the public interest"? As Councilor Archival pointed out, he hadn't seen one subject among all the executive sessions in the Sanggunian's previous year that would warrant exclusion of the public. That's the minority opinion although Archival could've pushed the point more strongly had he seized and unleashed the national law that strongly orders open-door Sanggunian sessions.

Either the councilors didn't get the law right or just chose to ignore the intent of the law, which is to make closed-door sessions of the local legislature rare and infrequent exceptions.

To the majority Barug, the executive session provides cover, if only temporarily, from prying eyes of critics. On the requirement of "in the public interest," who decides that but themselves, the party that dominates the City Council. The minority may go to court, which is unlikely, or find other ways to bring its case directly to the public.

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