An FOI law – in Pasig
Sans fanfare or media coverage (only this paper, it appears, reported on it), the Pasig City government recently passed Ordinance No. 37 — “The Pasig Transparency Mechanism Ordinance” — which allows the disclosure of city public records, including financial documents and contracts, upon request by ordinary citizens.
The law effectively makes Pasig the first city in Metro Manila to have its own version of the freedom of information (FOI) bill — a measure long promised by a succession of national leaders, but until now stalled in Congress.
Ordinance No. 37 empowers all Pasig City citizens to access, examine and copy any public records; they can also publish or disseminate them.
Citizens who request for these records do not even have to provide a reason for doing so, and the city government is mandated to act on any request within 10 days.
The city mayor is tasked to appoint an information officer who will handle the FOI requests; all city government departments must likewise designate deputy information officers within their departments who will work with the city information officer.
Any city employee or official who does not comply with such requests is subject to punishment—reprimand for the first offense, 30-day suspension for the second, and dismissal from service for the third violation.
This ordinance was championed by a young city councilor, Victor Ma. “Vico” Sotto, who said he had been working on the bill since 2015.
Filed in June this year, it was passed on third reading last month and will take effect 15 days after publication. While happy about the law’s passage, Sotto said its true value is when Pasig citizens make use of it: “The important part now is to watch its implementation, because it would be useless if it is not fully implemented. We need people to test the mechanism.”
While Pasig has managed to pass a thorough and progressive FOI law, on the national level the measure remains in limbo. Since 1987, with the first version of the bill proposed by the late Rep. Raul Roco, more than 10 FOI bills have gone through the congressional wringer, with no success.
It was a key campaign promise of Noynoy Aquino when he ran for president after the controversy- and corruption-wracked nine-year tenure of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but his administration eventually abandoned the effort.
That failed promise was then taken up by presidential candidate Rodrigo Roa Duterte. But when he won, Mr. Duterte also began adjusting expectations on the bill’s passage, despite the legislature being dominated by his allies, and in the end virtually threw in the towel.
Rather than force his congressional supermajority to work on the law that would lay down a national policy of full public disclosure and transparency in public service to promote accountability, Mr. Duterte simply decided to issue an executive order implementing FOI in the executive branch.
The legislature, judiciary and even local government units are not covered, though it encourages LGUs to observe the order.
How has the executive FOI fared so far? Not very encouragingly. Efforts by the Malacañang Press Corps, for instance, to request copies of the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of Cabinet officials have been met with stonewalling, the SALNs allegedly still undergoing a “review process.”
The Duterte administration has also been slow to release accounting for the President’s trips abroad.
Before becoming Senate president, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III had promised that “The FOI bill will push through; that’s what we will do.”
Pimentel is gone from the post, but an FOI law is still nowhere on the horizon. Two FOI bills remain pending in the House of Representatives’ committee on public information.
Mr. Duterte did urge Congress in December 2017 to work on the bill anew. “I hope that both the legislative and judicial branches of government would join us in strengthening our democratic institutions by following suit and instituting measures that would allow unfettered public access to relevant information about their affairs, subject to reasonable restrictions and regulations in exceptional circumstances,” he said.
Pasig City has just demonstrated that this can be done. Three cheers to it for its bold FOI law, and boo to Congress for its continuing inaction on this long-promised piece of vital legislation.
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