Seares: Mayor Rama advises cities, towns to pull out of MCWD, form their own water districts. ‘MC-ak’? He hasn’t told them that under the law, an LGU can’t control its water district once it is formed.

MCWD
MCWDFile Photo

[] Unless PD 198 is amended, role of local officials over a water district is severely limited.

[] If Cebu City or any other LGU breaks away and forms its own water district, the new entity will also be independent and autonomous

Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama has repeatedly given this advice to local governments whose residents are served by problem-plagued

Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD): Get out of MCWD, form your own water district.

The idea started with Cebu City having its own. Last February 23, 2024, he said on city government radio (“Ingnang Mayor”) he wanted a city-based water district to replace MCWD, “similar to but a scaled-down version of MCWD.” By that, the City Government could “concentrate on efforts to manage water resources specific to the City.” It would “mitigate,” he said, “concerns regarding resource management and leadership.”

The idea then evolved. Last May 5, 2024, Mayor Rama “pushed for a separate water district for each LGU currently being serviced by MCWD.” Each LGU “will be better served under the setup” as its water district “can directly attend to its residents’ needs.”

This time the mayor harped on the separate complaints of LGU leaders against MCWD’s service, citing Mandaue City Mayor Jonas Cortes and Talisay City Mayor Gerald Anthony “Samsam” Gullas who had griped about “poor service and inadequate supply.”

He said the cities of Mandaue, Lapu-Lapu, and Talisay and the towns of Cordova, Consolacion, Liloan, and Compostela “can better serve their respective constituents and improve their own water systems.”

MOTIVE, OTHER THAN THE STATED REASONS: “ARON WAY LALIS” Better service is the theme in the break-up-MCWD proposal. Cebu City News and Information, the city government’s Facebook page, used “MC-ak” in its story headline, apparently inspired by the more widely known but ill-fated Sugbu-ak, the proposal to break up -- in 2005, just before the 2007 elections -- Cebu Province into three, then four separate provinces. “MC-ak” is another portmanteau, a made-up word from the combination of “MCWD” and the Cebuano-Bisaya “si-ak,” meaning to cleave or split.

But other than to improve MCWD service, Mayor Rama disclosed an underlying motive: for the LGU to guide and control its water district’s operations, “aron way lalis,” he said.

BUT WATER UTILITIES LAW LIMITS LGU’S ROLE. If a city like Cebu City or Mandaue City or a town like Cordova or Compostela would decide to put up its own water district, it has to follow the law that applies to local water districts: namely, Presidential Decree No. 198 of May 25, 1973.

The 51-year-old law adopted “a national policy favoring local operation and control of water systems,” how they are formed, governed, and administered as water districts, with a national administration to facilitate and improve the water utilities.

In other words, while the LGU decides on creating and establishing its own water district, the local government will have nothing to do with the water district’s operations.

Under the law, the city, town, or province legislative council shall enact the resolution or ordinance for the creation or establishment of the water district, file it with the Local Water Utilities Administration, and upon such date of filing shall be deemed “duly formed and existing.” From then on, the water district is run by its board of directs, its powers are powers of the district, and its regulation by Local Water Utilities Administration.

The law is specific: “Once former, a district is subject to the provisions of this Act (PD No. 198 and not under the provision of any political subdivision.” Unless the law is amended or struck down, LGUs cannot make a water district fit to its officials’ plans and wishes.

MAYOR’S PART SEVERELY LIMITED. The city mayor/town mayor or provincial governor may initiate the creation of its own water district by having the legislative council or board pass the resolution or ordinance.

After the duly approved local law is filed with LWUA and the water district begins its legal existence, the mayor or governor shall appoint the directors but only if he or she is the “appointing authority,” the qualification being the plurality of consumers served by the water district.

The Cebu City mayor has been the “appointing authority” over MCWD directors, an issue that was litigated between Cebu City and Cebu Province and settled finally by the Supreme Court in the city’s favor.

But while the city mayor’s authority to appoint is settled legally, the authority to terminate MCWD directors is not. Not yet, as the June 2023 Regional Trial Court decision affirming then mayor Edgardo Labella’s power to fire directors was appealed in August of that year to the high court. A number of people, including some MCWD managers and employees, have chosen to ignore the RTC ruling and would wait for the SC decision.

“DON’T POKE YOUR NOSES” WARNING. National agencies -- in memos from the Department of the Interior and Local Government and opinions from the justice secretary or the Government Office Corporate Counsel -- have harped on “autonomy” and “independence” of local water utilities.

Memorandum-circular No. 2019-03 was issued following reports that some local government officials were meddling in the operations of local water districts. "The water districts are autonomous by themselves,” then DILG secretary Eduardo Ano said, “local officials should not poke their noses into operations of local water districts.”

“Politicians stay away” seems to be the sign hung on MCWD’s gate. Yet there’s no mechanism that’s ready and effective for an LGU or LGUs to seek relief if the board of directors of MCWD, or any other water district, violates rules against corruption or fails to do its basic job.

The law doesn’t want the water district to be mired in politics by banning elective officials but does not or cannot stop politicking by a director bent on getting elected to public office.

WITH PD NO. 198 TELLING LGU TO BACK OFF once its water district is formed, how would the idea of creating its own not discourage mayors or the governor? No, unless they can have the law changed and it won’t be soon and will be tough as it is the national policy, not inscribed on stone but has ruled for more than five decades already.

Yet, even if Cebu City wouldn’t have its own water district, future conflicts can be reduced by improving PD No. 198: principally, by making the powers more specific, such as removing the ambiguity on the mayor’s authority to terminate directors and clarifying the role of LWUA in taking over management of an ailing water district.

The Jose Daluz III-led directors have been enabled to defy “openly and brazenly” both City Hall and LWUA partly because of the law’s vagueness.

LAW’S INTENT; “HOSTILE LGU.” The mess and potential violence at the MCWD, a situation going on since last year, tell that the law has failed. Cebu City Government is described -- in LWUA Resolution #35 of September 2023, which authorized its takeover of MCWD -- as a “hostile LGU.” And no solution is near.

The gaps in the law, along with the failure of the mediation mechanism, are partly to blame. And some Cebuano leaders' seemingly infinite capacity to quarrel among themselves cannot dodge the accusatory finger-pointing.

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