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As I See It

Cebu Gov. Garcia’s suspension

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Happy New Year! I hope you still have all your fingers.

On New Year’s Eve, I enjoyed watching and listening to all the pyrotechnic devices exploding and swishing up into the air. I listened to the crackle of powerful firecrackers, watched the rockets shoot up into the air and explode in a kaleidoscope of colors to light up the night sky, and I had a very enjoyable time until early morning, but I still have all my fingers. And I didn’t have to spend a single peso on the fireworks.

Me and my family watched all hell break loose all around us on New Year’s Eve from a balcony of a condo unit. We sat on comfortable chairs while rockets whistled up into the air to break up into multicolored lights sparkling in the sky.

We could hear the crackle of firecrackers as if a war was going on, punctuated by the loud booms of powerful, illegal and banned firecrackers. With each boom, I wondered if somebody had again lost a finger or a toe. I also wondered: If they had been banned, and the police had confiscated them and closed the offending stores as claimed in press releases, then where did all those mini-bombs come from?

The final count of the people killed or injured by firecrackers, by guns fired indiscriminately into the air, and by fires set off by hoards of fireworks, is still not in. After the final tally, the Philippine National Police, the Department of Health and other government authorities will most likely come out with statements that the casualties are less than those of last year, or only slightly higher. They will then pat themselves on the back, and attribute it to their “timely, painstaking, and successful” antifirecracker campaigns.

That’s not good enough. Even just one killed or injured is one too many. It means the government failed, regardless of what it claims in its press releases.

We need stricter laws regulating the manufacture, sale and use of pyrotechnic devices. We already have one, Republic Act No. 7183, but it is so lenient that fireworks manufacturers and sellers just laugh at it. The punishment if convicted (and that is a big “IF” because in the Philippines, court trials last forever, during which time the accused can ask the help of a kumpadre, kumadre or relative of the judge, prosecutor and police officials to intercede for them) is imprisonment for only six months to one year, or a fine of P20,000 to P30,000. That is nothing. A manufacturer or store can earn more in just one day. The imprisonment part is also nothing. Judges usually impose only the fine and not the jail sentence, even if both can be imposed at the same time.

New bills with stricter rules on fireworks have been filed in the Senate, but they have been hibernating for years in the committee chaired by Sen. Gringo Honasan. With the present uproar over firecracker casualties, the senator said that he would “resurrect” them. But chances are, when the uproar dies down, when the dead are buried and the injured limbs amputated and the patients go home, everything will be forgotten and it will again be the same song and dance until the next New Year comes around and more people die or are maimed.

* * *

Suspended Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve at the provincial capitol which she has turned into a veritable fortress in anticipation of a government siege to force her out. She had ordered workers to put chains and padlocks as big as the human fist on the doors of her office. The windows have been boarded up with plywood. She had been suspended by Malacañang for six months for usurpation of public authority. But Garcia defied Malacañang, saying  her suspension is nothing but “dirty politics.”

Garcia has filed a petition for the issuance of a temporary restraining order and has decided to barricade herself at the capitol while awaiting the Court of Appeals ruling.

Before he died, Cebu Vice Gov. Gregorio Sanchez had filed an administrative case against Garcia whom he accused of encroaching on legislative powers, grave misconduct and abuse of authority.

Among other things, the complaint said Garcia slashed the budget of the vice governor by 61 percent; transferred the funding of the Legislative Research and Codification Project from the Office of the Vice Governor to the Office of the Governor; withheld overtime pay due personnel of the Office of the Vice Governor, and issued a check for P10 million without prior authority from the Sangguniang Panlalawigan.

Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo investigated the charges, found her guilty and recommended to the Office of the President that she be suspended for six months. Malacañang sustained Robredo’s recommendations and implemented the suspension order.

Garcia defied the order, barricading herself in the Cebu capitol, and filed her petition in the Court of Appeals.

The solicitor general filed its opposition, pointing out that the petition failed to demonstrate that there was any “flagrant” abuse by the Office of the President in its exercise of the power of suspension over erring provincial officials.

The key phrase is: “Flagrant abuse of the power of suspension.” Failing to prove such abuse, said the Office of the Solicitor General, it is next to impossible to undo an administrative sanction which is the prerogative of any president.

And Garcia’s petition for a TRO never addressed the issue. It dwelled instead on the worn arguments she raised when she was still opposing the administrative case filed by Sanchez in 2010. These were the same arguments that Robredo found insufficient to shield Garcia from suspension.

The findings of flagrant abuse of authority are what Garcia is trying to overturn, but she brought no fresh arguments to the Court of Appeals to prove that Malacañang abused its power.


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