CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – Officials in Misamis Oriental claimed they were kept in the dark about plans to open up a casino in Opol, the first town in the province west of Cagayan de Oro.
“They told us it was going to be an office with a warehouse at the back,” said Rhey Yecyec, the barangay chairman of Taboc where Grand Imperial casino has been operating since late December 2021.
Misamis Oriental provincial board member and former Opol mayor Dexter Yasay told Rappler on Tuesday, January 4, he had presumed that it was going to be another store of the Gokongwei-owned Robinsons Retail Holdings Incorporated, which is behind the second-largest supermarket chain in the country.
Opol Mayor Maximino Seno told Magnum Radio that the Gokongwei group was operating Northern Mindanao’s only casino – under the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) – that had its soft launch on December 19. It has scheduled its grand opening for later this month.
No business permit
Most officials, including Opol Vice Mayor Louie Neri, have decried the secrecy, absence of public consultations, and apparent misrepresentation during the planning and construction stages of the casino.
It came as an unwelcome surprise when Grand Imperial opened its doors barely a week before Christmas. On December 28, Archbishop Jose Cabantan issued a two-page statement against the casino, expressing the local Catholic archdiocese’s opposition to its operations.
“It was done in a manner that was swift. I don’t know how it happened,” Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno told Rappler on Tuesday night.
Yecyec said he and other Barangay Taboc officials inspected the casino on December 23, and the establishment could not show any business permit from the town government or any document in support of its operations.
He said the barangay hall sent Grand Imperial two letters in September and on December 17, 2021, and the officials were told that it was going to be an office.
“A manager went to the barangay hall to assure us that it wasn’t going to be a casino – that it was just going to be for an office and a warehouse at the back,” said Yecyec.
That was the reason why the barangay hall allowed the construction project to proceed a few months back because he and other officials were made to think that it was not going to be a casino.
Yecyec said he and Mayor Seno never talked about plans to establish a casino in his village.
He said, “I ask them to submit to our processes, and let’s have public consultations first so that we will not be suspected of irregularities.”
Secrecy and discourtesy
Across the street from Grand Imperial casino stands the barangay hall where Yecyec holds office and an adjacent daycare center. About 300 meters away stands a church, and there is a school nearby.
Yecyec said, “I don’t know how anyone can legally operate the casino given its proximity to a church, schools, and a government office.”
Yasay, a former mayor of the town, said he was disturbed about the lack of basic courtesy and transparency of those behind the new casino.
“Not even once were we (provincial government officials) given the courtesy. We didn’t even know about the December 19 soft launch. There was no information about the casino whatsoever,” said the provincial board member.
Yasay warned that officials who allowed the casino to operate without local clearances and public consultations will be facing administrative cases, and those who erred “need to be held liable.”
Yasay said, “It’s not a question about the franchise [from PAGCOR]. It’s another issue to operate casinos in localities or municipalities. And then there is an issue about transparency.
He said the Misamis Oriental provincial board would convene as a committee of the whole or task its games and amusement committee to start an investigation into the controversial casino operations.
Yasay said they would also summon the town’s mayor and other local officials, and representatives so they could shed light on the matter.
“This is my municipality. This is where I was born. This is where I served as a mayor until I became a provincial board member. Until the last drop of my blood, I will defend my municipality,” Yasay said.
Mayor Moreno, for his part, said he found it unthinkable that officials in Misamis Oriental were kept in the dark about the casino.
“PAGCOR would not have opened up an outlet anywhere without sub-clearance from the authorities all the way up. I don’t think PAGCOR would have done that without, at the very least, consulting or sending signals. The barangay cannot feign ignorance about it and neither can the municipal and provincial governments,” Moreno said.
Jurisdiction and limitations
The controversy has gone beyond the village of Taboc and the town of Opol that even the mayor of neighboring Cagayan de Oro said he would join impending mass actions being planned by the local Catholic archdiocese against the Opol casino operations.
In 1993, PAGCOR opened up a casino at the now-defunct Pryce Plaza Hotel in Carmen, Cagayan de Oro, won a case against a group led by the then-mayor Pablo Magtajas, but bowed down to public pressure as priests, nuns, and other religious groups led mass demonstrations and picketed daily at the entrance of the hotel. Several other attempts to put up a casino in the city and Misamis Oriental faced similar protests.
Like Yasay and Yecyec, Mayor Moreno said he too was caught aback by the opening of the casino.
“I was not aware,” said Moreno who said he was opposed to gambling.
Moreno, however, said he “cannot dictate upon any local government unit outside Cagayan de Oro.”
Moreno said, “That’s an area outside the jurisdiction of the city. And so, it would not be proper for me to tell them what to do or what not to do. There are jurisdictions, and we have to understand the limits of jurisdiction. We cannot go beyond our jurisdiction and pretend that Opol is under the governance of Cagayan de Oro. We cannot do that.”
Neither can anyone legally stop PAGCOR from opening up an outlet in Opol or elsewhere, he said.
Moreno added, “But there are realities in life that go beyond legalese. We cannot restrain Opol from allowing that, but the people can… I would wear the hat of a Catholic and would be happy to join mass actions led by the Church.” –Rappler.com