Seares: Ex-city manager Jun Casas says City Council OK’d in lump sum outlay P1.3B drainage contract he signed in mayor Labella’s name. COA flagged it, says Rama key aide Jerone Castillo. And who owns Cebu Updates, is it ‘anti-Rama’?

CEBU. Photos of Floro Casas Jr., Colin Rosell and Jerone Castillo. (File photos)
CEBU. Photos of Floro Casas Jr., Colin Rosell and Jerone Castillo. (File photos)

WHAT HAPPENED: Friday, July 21, 2023, Cebu City Administrator Colin Rosell and Jerone Castillo, the mayor’s assistant on special projects, Castillo, told a press conference that City Hall will go after “City Hall Updates,” a social media site that has been posting in the last few days findings of the Commission on Audit (COA) on, among others, alleged irregularities on typhoon cash aid and drug users who were market division employees of City Hall.

Rosell and Castillo led at the press-con a clutch of department heads who were involved in, or familiar with, the hot issues that have gone viral on the internet.

QUESTIONS THAT NAG. The press conference apparently was to neutralize adverse public reaction to unsavory findings against the Rama administration, which Cebu Updates have posted. The soc-med site, because of its earlier City Hall ties, reportedly had preview of the COA reports, ahead of Cebu’s dailies and other regular news sites.

Among the major issues raised at the press-con and set off these questions:

[] Casas’s authority: Former city administrator Floro Casas Jr. signed the P1.3 billion drainage in the name of the mayor. Did he have the authority to sign for then mayor Edgardo Labella and, if he had, was he authorized by the City Council? to sign that specific contract?

One city official said “COA said Casas had no authority from the Sanggunian” to sign that particular contract. Casas told me there was no need as the City Council had previously approved a lump sum appropriation.

[] Ownership, use of Cebu Updates: Did the Cebu City Government “own” Cebu Updates, formerly named the Cebu City Public Information Office? Has it been used as a media outlet to criticize the Rama administration?

Two City Hall key officials said at the press-con Cebu Updates is City Government property. An administrator of the site told me it is private property.

CASAS AND P1.3B DEAL. Atty. Castillo, Mayor Rama’s assistant on special projects, made it clear to reporters that Atty. Casas’s alleged excess of authority in the 2021 P1.3 billion drainage project was called out by COA. It was COA, “not us,” Castillo said, who questioned why Casas “entered into a contract... without the authorization of the Sangguniang Panglungsod (SP).” This is “a very serious matter,” Castillo said at the press-con, “even if you have authority to sign for the mayor, you need the express authority to sign” a specific contract.

Casas told me Saturday, July 22 that “not all transactions require prior Sanggunian approval,” citing a purported ruling in Quisumbing vs. Garcia. “Perhaps, Atty. Castillo didn’t research right (“wala seguro siya nag-research og tarong”) because there (was) an SP resolution allowing charging of the ABC for the project from the lump sum account.

The COA report though, a SunStar July 20 report said, the state auditor “stressed that the city administrator has no authority to bind the City Government into a contract using the lump sum without the authority of the SP.” The same COA report found “excessive” the advance payment of P199.323 million advance payment, for the design phase, in 2021, equivalent to 15 percent of the contract cost.

Slamming the administration at the time, COA said the City Government “should have exerted efforts to expedite its completion.” The project was suspended three times, “for flimsy reasons,” COA said, “with (such) ease” and leniency that it gave “the impression that the contractor was given unwarranted favors.” As of December 31, 2022, there were 247 days of delay. COA recommended that the contract be terminated or revoked because of the delays and the advance payment of almost P200 million recovered.

QUESTION OF AUTHORITY. Casas showed me an office order of then mayor Labella issued July 6, 2019, granting authority to sign disbursement vouchers, payrolls, purchase requests, and such other official documents related to them. The order -- addressed to then C.A. Casas; city attorney Joey Daluz; Jerone Castillo of the city treasurer’s office; and budget officer Marietta Gumia -- assigned the respective areas where the officials were signatory.

An excerpt from the minutes of the City Council session of July 9, 2019 said the City Council decided to “delegate and grant authority” for Casas to sign vouchers, payrolls and other official documents listed in the July 6 office memo.

Labella must have been feeling ill already at the time; later he had to be frequently hospitalized, leading to his death on November 19, 2021. Obviously, the mayor had so much trust in Casas, or had no one else to trust, that he gave his city administrator almost all the signing powers.

Atty. Castillo though distinguished authority to sign for the mayor from authority from the City Council to sign for a specific contract. The first was given both by the mayor and the Sanggunian. The second was not expressly given by the City Council for the drainage project, except on a lump sum appropriation, from which the money for the drainage deal was taken. Casas’s defense, it would seem, is that the Sanggunian approval was no longer needed as it had previously approved a lump sum for the project.

THE ‘CEBU UPDATES’ FACTOR. The posts about City Hall that went viral were carried by Cebu Updates, a site that used to be controlled by City Hall. Atty. Casas told me Cebu Updates is privately created social media site that publishes official events and announcements. The page “is, or was, not owned

by CCG, as Atty. Castillo implied,” Casas said.

A January 9, 2023 blog by media specialist Max Limpag -- titled “Bring your own kabaw,” mocking Mayor Rama’s Sinulog at SRP -- referred to Cebu Updates as an “old Cebu City PIO Facebook page.” Limpag’s inquiry disclosed that:

[] May 2, 2012: The FB page was created as the Cebu City Public Information Office during the previous term of Mayor Michael Rama;

[] August 3, 2016: Its name was changed to City of Cebu, Public Information Office, under then mayor Tomas Osmena;

[] January, January 27, 2018: The name was reverted to Cebu City Public Information Office, still under Osmeña, with Malou Inocando-Tabar as PIO;

[] 2019 -2021: With the assumption of Edgardo Labella as mayor in 2019, Tabar said she turned over “admin access” to Razel Cuizon, Labella’s PIO With Labella’s death in November 2021, Mike Rama’s team used another FB page, created earlier on November 9, 2011 and known as Barug Sugbo TV;

[] January 5, 2022: PIO’s old page was renamed Cebu Updates. Cerwin Eviota, the PIO in Year One of Rama’s fresh full term, told Max Limpag the page was not turned over to him -- and obviously, he also didn’t seek its retrieval.

At the press-con, both Rosell and Cartillo said in effect City Hall has mobilized its forces to look into the case and charge the persons responsible.

RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT? Apparently, (a) for the loss of what they believe as City Hall property and (b) its use against Rama and his administration.

Both are being disputed by Atty. Casas. Jun Casas told me Cebu Updates is private property and it is “not anti-Rama.”

On the ownership or, more precisely, the control of Cebu Updates, Limpag said also Saturday, July 22, he thinks the Rama administration “dropped the ball by failing to demand turnover” of the PIO/Cebu Updates page. They should’ve exhausted all means to recover it, rather than start a new page. They were in a strong position then to take the old page back, Max said.

Cebu Updates could be “undermining them, “with a bigger audience at that, an audience built using government resources back when it was official PIO page, with content published by government and employees paid for with public funds.”

NOT ANTI-RAMA, HE SAYS. Atty. Casas, who admits he is an administrator of Cebu Updates, said it is not anti-Rama, “though the most interesting stories now involve the Rama administration, so we gladly post them.”

Using the “we’re-only-messengers” line, Casas said “we only post, we do not create the news.” But in City Hall, he said, “now we see more ‘palpak’ talk and propaganda rather than ‘actual, concrete ‘positive efforts and achievements.’” So we post that, he said, and when we see something good, we post it too.

Casas told me City Hall “is not very transparent.” He cited the absence of information about the controversial Boracay trip, no update on the use of the P50 billion budget this year, or how much the City has collected so far. Saying he’s also from City Hall, he “can feel there’s something wrong” with the way the City Government is being run.

As a kind of reaching out to Mayor Rama and Atty. Castillo, Cebu Updates in a lead post also Saturday, “we extend our message of cooperation and understanding.” While the outlet “strives to highlight the positive efforts and achievements of our city leaders,” it is also the responsibility of Cebu Updates “to report the truth,” not to “tarnish anyone’s image but to promote a better Cebu for everyone.”

FRIED BY OWN LARD. Criticisms against Rama and company from the previously owned FB page may seem more painful as it would be like, in old Cebuano-Bisaya adage, being fried by one’s own lard ("gigisal sa kaugalingong mantika").


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