Seares: Dysfunction, mess at MCWD, squabble with Cebu City Hall and LWUA are caused by gaps in the law, political interests and plain incivility.

CEBU. A confrontation between the groups of Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD) chairman Jose Daluz III and Cebu City Administrator Collin Rosell happened on Monday, April 15, 2024, at the MCWD office. Right photo shows Atty. John Dx Lapid, who was designated as MCWD acting general manager by the Local Water Utilities Administration.
CEBU. A confrontation between the groups of Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD) chairman Jose Daluz III and Cebu City Administrator Collin Rosell happened on Monday, April 15, 2024, at the MCWD office. Right photo shows Atty. John Dx Lapid, who was designated as MCWD acting general manager by the Local Water Utilities Administration. Cebu City PIO/Arkeen Larisma of SunStar Cebu

[] Law and rules are not specific or clear, or are being questioned, whether (a) the city mayor can fire an MCWD director (RTC says yes but the issue is raised to SC); (b) LWUA can declare MCWD in default only for non-payment of loan (loan contract or FAC lists other causes, including poor performance in decreasing non-revenue water, uncompleted contracts and alleged irregularities; (c) MCWD can tell regulator LWUA to back off when it doesn't agree with its regulatory order.

[] How can MCWD be politics-free, as envisioned by PD #198, when people appointed as director or manager themselves engage in politics against or with elected officials?

THE dysfunction was on public and center stage Monday, April 15, 2024, even before the start of office hours, when Atty. John Dx Lapid, temporary general manager appointed for MCWD by LWUA's interim board, was barred from entering the premises of the water district on his first day.

Atty. John Dx Lapid couldn't get inside because of a lockdown ordered by Jose Daluz III and Edgar Donoso whom LWUA had suspended as board chairman and GM, respectively.

Lapid, head of MCWD's customer care division, was appointed on April 12 as acting GM for 90 days, replacing Donoso, who, the interim board said, staged a "continuing defiance" of said board and violation of its orders.

LOCKOUT AT MCWD. Board holdouts such as Daluz and two other directors -- Miguelito Pato and Jodelyn May Seno, who had been repeatedly dismissed by Mayor Michael Rama but latched on to their posts until, they said, LWUA would rule on the controversy -- in effect told the LWUA appointees to bug off, slamming the MCWD gate on their faces. Acting on the "defiant" board's order, Donoso's inter-office memo prohibited the entry of Lapid and the interim directors from LWUA by shutting down the water district's main office.

What could be more flagrant display of "abnormality" or "impairment" in the functions of MCWD as water provider -- and LWUA's as regulator -- than that?

Lapid stayed in his car, doing media interviews, until about 10 a.m. when a group "led by Lapid," including a group from City Hall with City Administrator Collin Rosell and other lawyers and possibly security personnel, towed the previously-barred persons into the GM's office.

"I RESIGN." Lapid was installed physically, along with the interim board -- the three initially appointed and two more who are Cebu-based personalities -- but before noon the next day, Tuesday, he announced in a social media post his decision to resign as OIC general manager. He said he was also "considering" to quit as division manager in the water district. Lapid cited pressure from his family that has been "affected" by his involvement in the conflict but didn't mention the advice made by a participant in the drama, couched in a threat, the charge for insubordination.

Lapid didn't address his resignation as GM to the interim board that appointed him but to the MCWD "management." The OIC slot is temporary; the division manager job is not.

THE MATTER OF POLITICS. In announcing his decision about quitting from MCWD, Lapid blamed politics.

Mayor Rama and Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia in the days before Monday's "drama," accused each other of meddling in affairs beyond their respective jurisdiction: Mike said Gwen was poking into a national and City Hall project, the Cebu Bus Rapid Transit and the Cebu City-Cebu Port Authority squabble. Gwen said Mike strayed from his "kingdom" into CPA and MCWD-LWUA jurisdictions.

Politics is rearing its head at MCWD a good half-year before the filing of COCs or certificates of candidacy next October. There's no serious talk about Governor Garcia herself leaping into the city race but she might have a surrogate here in 2025, given her worsening conflict with Mayor Rama.

It's different in the Daluz vs Rama dispute, as Joey Daluz, a former city councilor, has repeatedly confirmed he's running in 2025 for city mayor or supporting someone else who'll fight against Mike. While legislators didn't want politicians to interfere with operations of water districts, a politician who got into MCWD managed to embroil the apolitical water district in a long-running conflict with the LGU and MCWD's regulator, the LWUA.

In the latest tangle over MCWD affairs, both Garcia and Rama were heard and seen in media, along with the images and voices of the other participants in what the digital media label as a "drama" and "extravaganza."

While MCWD called the spectacle at the water district offices an "invasion," "brazen action," and "disregard for law and order," Mayor Rama, speaking on City Hall radio-TV, said it was not; they "followed the rule of law."

No act of force or violence though was recorded officially in police blotter or unofficially in video or still-photo images. MCWD security guards must have been simply awed by the presence of City Hall biggies such as the mayor's top lawyers, or the sheer force of number of people getting in, even as police were nearby "just in case."

Governor Garcia didn't just weigh in with her blast against LWUA for "intervening in the worst possible time," given the El Niño crisis, "a real and present danger." She brought to the April 15 press-con several mayors in Metro Cebu and the rest of the province, with some members of the Provincial Board. Many of them represent water consumers who haven't been satisfied with MCWD's service, some of whom in 2023 protested against the water district's "inefficiency."

GAP IN THE LAW: MAYOR'S RIGHT TO FIRE. Those who have watched the MCWD controversy up close said that all this started with the dismissal of three MCWD board directors -- Jun Pe, Ralph Sevilla and Cecilia Adlawan -- who in 2019 sued civilly then mayor, the late, Edgardo Labella, then LWUA acting chief Jeci Lapus, and four interim board members. The Regional Trial Court on June 30, 2023 ruled that the mayor had the right fire board directors as a consequence of his right to appoint them. June Pe and company appealed the decision on August 31, 2023.

The appeal, which the SC still has to hear, would settle the question on the mayor's authority to fire. But that could take a lot more years. Meantime, the unresolved question leaves hanging the issue of Rama's removal of Daluz, Pato and Seno.

The Provincial Water Utilities Act of 1973 (Presidential Decree #198) provides the mayor's power to appoint directors and leaves the question of the power to fire them ambiguous, which June Pe et al's lawyers have used in continuing the lawsuit that rests on autonomy for water districts.

NOT MADE CLEAR: WATER DISTRICT'S DEFAULT. MCWD holdouts Daluz and company, along with suspended GM Donoso, have tapped another unclear area in PD #198 as legal ground for not obeying LWUA's order: Whether MCWD can be declared in default for a cause or causes other than its failure to amortize its loan.

LWUA's Resolution #35, passed by the LWUA board of trustees in September 2023 but enforced only last March 15, 2024 authorized a takeover, citing not just PD 198 but also the FAC or financial assistance contract. FAC authorizes declaration of default for causes other non-payment of the loan, including the worsening non-revenue water level of MCWD, uncompleted contracts and other irregularities flagged by COA, the Office of Corporate Government Counsel, and the LGU Cebu City Government.

The aspect of the law, which defenders of MCWD's "defiant" board cite, is lengthily discussed in several "whereases" of LWUA's Resolution #35. Default can be declared not just for nonpayment of a LWUA loan but for also a number of causes, which MCWD was supposed to recognize and accept by signing the FAC. The March 26, 2024 opinion from the Office of Government Counsel, dated March 26, 2024 but released on April 2, failed to address this aspect of the dispute.

THEY AREN'T DEBATING LIKE LAWYERS, commented a lawyer who watched a video clip showing a City Hall lawyer and one of the Rama-fired and LWUA suspended directors in a verbal exchange inside MCWD last Monday. If he hadn't known better, the observant lawyer said, he would've thought it was a quarrel happening at a fish market.

Sad and a pity that gone are the days of, the lawyer said, "Matoy Seno, Billy Legaspi, the practitioner Davide and Dito Bugarin." Often, it's not just a matter of knowing the law but of communicating clearly to one another, with civility and courtesy never thrown out the window even in the heat of a debate.

A lucid discussion on the inadequacy of the law would help put in clear light and provide the public better understanding of what the protagonists are arguing about. But then it's not just a matter of law anymore. Politics and clashing interests get in the way.


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