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Editorial

Power play

/ 04:08 AM October 26, 2021

Something starkly disturbing happened in the early hours of Oct. 18 in the headquarters of the Benguet Electric Cooperative (Beneco) in Baguio City: A “commando-type” operation was staged to take over the firm, with the National Electrification Administration (NEA) deputizing the Cordillera police to storm the place. The purpose: to install a former assistant secretary at the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) in Malacañang as Beneco general manager, despite her alleged lack of qualifications and the opposition to her appointment by the Beneco board, employees, and consumers.

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The use of force and intimidation by the police to implement a questionable appointment was breathtaking. The takeover of the power coop, which is the lone supplier of electricity to Baguio City and all 13 towns of Benguet province, drew widespread condemnation from residents, businessmen, organizations, and officials, including Baguio City Mayor Magalong, Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan, and Bishop Victor Bendico of the Diocese of Baguio.

Per the accounts of Beneco employees posted on their union’s Facebook page, around 50 members of the Police Regional Office in Cordillera swooped down on the Beneco compound at 3 a.m. on Monday, in full battle gear and long firearms. They reportedly broke down the locked doors, barricaded the entrance to the compound, and even removed the CCTV camera during the dawn operation.

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The object of all this aggression was to forcibly install in office Omar Mayo as caretaker and Ana Maria Rafael-Banaag as general manager. Banaag, a former PCOO assistant secretary, was appointed by the NEA to the post last August despite protests over her ineligibility.

The NEA forced Banaag’s installation even if its own Memorandum No. 2017-035 requires that all qualified applicants for the position should be submitted to the Beneco board for consideration.

In a special meeting on Aug. 31, the Beneco directors affirmed the appointment of another person, Melchor Licoben, as general manager and rejected Banaag’s designation.

The NEA board issued a suspension order on Sept. 28 against Licoben and seven Beneco directors—Jeffred Acop, Mike Maspil, Peter Busaing, Jonathan Obar, Josephin Tuling, Robert Valentin, and board president Esteban Somngi—based on a complaint filed by Banaag on Sept. 6 where she accused the Beneco board of gross insubordination, willful violation of NEA rules, indirect contempt, and refusal to accept her designation as general manager. The former Malacañang functionary’s clout was apparently that powerful that the NEA could then order the police to forcibly take over the Beneco headquarters on her behalf.

Somngi described the police raid as “like they were conducting commando operations.’’ It was an illegal action, he protested, as the police failed to present any court order. And “If they were there to enforce the NEA suspension order, why did it have to be at 3 a.m. and why did the police have to be in full battle gear?”

The story didn’t end there, however. Banaag and her NEA enablers got a dose of their own medicine when, the following day, the Beneco Employees Labor Union and officials marched to the headquarters to wrest back control of the power coop. They were supported by Beneco consumers who staged an “Occupy Beneco’’ event and by the Diocese of Baguio which led a prayer vigil.

Two days after the police-backed takeover, Beneco officials led by Licoben and the employees were back at their desks to resume the power coop’s operations. Rightly so, they are now pushing for an investigation into the naked power play they were subjected to, all to impose an unwanted appointment in a civilian utility enterprise critical to the economic well-being of Baguio and Benguet province.

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Why are recycled Palace functionaries being inflicted on well-functioning operations such as Beneco, in blatant disregard of the company’s rules and selection process and against the voices of stakeholders in the franchise area?

Magalong revealed that NEA even asked the Army to intervene and augment the police force during the Oct. 18 takeover by Banaag’s group, which he said he flatly discouraged. In denouncing the takeover, Magalong warned that Beneco was being “dragged into a leadership crisis by some quarters at a time when it was able to reach the highest pedestal of the country’s power industry.’’ Beneco, he stressed, had become among the top-performing electric cooperatives in the country through its “transparent and accountable leadership… And its general manager Engineer Melchor Licoben has proven his competence and efficiency.’’

Hence Magalong’s question that many others are asking: “Why fix something that is not broken?’’ What’s the bigger scheme at play?

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TAGS: Ana Maria Rafael-Banaag, Beneco, Benjamin Magalong, Editorial, NEA, Omar Mayo
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