BACOLOD CITY, Philippines – Fiscal reform and an anti-corruption drive are the first key goals of Bacolod City mayor-elect Alfredo “Albee” Benitez in taking over the reins of Negros Occidental’s independently administered capital.
The billionaire businessman and former Negros Occidental 3rd District legislator announced on May 26 the creation of a “Truth Commission” that will review and audit all previous transactions of the outgoing administration. Benitez’s announcement came after he took his oath as incoming mayor.
On Wednesday, June 8, Benitez told Rappler that “former state auditors [and] private consultants whose focus and expertise is government accounting systems and processes, among others,” will be part of the commission.
“We will be making the announcement next week,” he said.
Among the issues Benitez wants cleared up is the number of job order (JO) hires under Evelio “Bing” Leonardia, the city’s longest-serving mayor and outgoing national president of the League of Cities of the Philippines.
The mayor-elect will create several teams for the audit.
“We have already received reports detailing questionable transactions and we intend to fully uncover them through the help of experts from various fields,” Benitez said, without going into details.
The former legislator trounced Leonardia in the 2022 local polls, getting 171,893 votes to the incumbent mayor’s 107,447 votes.
While the hiring of JO workers is allowed by law, the practice has also been criticized as a key aspect of patronage politics – a reward for loyal followers who may end up as “ghost employees.”
The Commission on Audit’s (COA) 2020 report on Bacolod City does not contain any red flags on hiring practices.
Reelected Vice Mayor El Cid Familiaran and elected councilor Em Ang, who served as Leonardia’s city administrator, told Rappler in separate telephone interviews on Wednesday, June 8, that they have no problem with the Truth Commission.
“I don’t see any problem. Any new administration wants a fresh start. I think he wants to know the real state of the city’s coffers, which is normal,” Familiaran said.
In 2020, on the request of Leonardia, the Sangguinang Panglungsod (SP) approved an appropriation ordinance, approving a P21-million yearend budget for the P3,000 gratuity pay of city hall contractual and job order workers. The mayor’s request came after President Rodrigo Duterte approved the payout.
The vice mayor, who presides over the SP, said the body unanimously approved the measure.
“It was unanimous. Five members of the opposition also voted for it,” Familiaran pointed out. “As presiding officer, I come in only during a tie.”
Ang, the former city administrator, said the last two pandemic years would have increased the number of job order workers.
“Most will come under the city health office. Remember, we hired nurses, med techs, cleaning staff, and other staff required in isolation centers, as well as additional workers for tracking and other pandemic needs,” Ang told Rappler.
Ang said that based on the 2020 ordinance, which provides P3,000 per worker, the city would have around 7,000 contractual and job order hires.
She stressed that the department heads, not the city administrator, approve job orders.
“I really don’t know how the JOs work,” Ang said. “What comes to us is the salary check approved by the department heads.”
She expressed confidence that Benitez, a veteran legislator, will follow due process and use COA standards and requirements in his audit.
Ready to work with anyone
The vice mayor noted that the law allows job orders and that when budgets are passed, legislators work on a needs forecast.
“That doesn’t mean you will use up that budget. It doesn’t work that way. For example, the new LGU (local government unit) officials will soon be submitting budgets, citing fuel needs based on the prevailing prices and the possibility of even higher costs. But when they actually use it, they will pay only what the market is asking.”
“It’s up to the executive to spend taxpayers’ money,” stressed Familiaran. “We usually presume regularity. Only when there are clear red flags will the SP start making noise.”
Both Ang and Familiaran said they will work according to their past record – support where needed, raise questions when issues crop up.
“I can work with everybody,” said the vice mayor who won by a landslide over Benitez’s running mate, former councilor Caesar Distrito.
“That is my trademark even from my council days, when I served two terms in the opposition,” said Familiarian. “I don’t politicize or delay progress. If it is good for constituents, I will support.” – Rappler.com