MANILA, Philippines – Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto on Wednesday, April 1, denied having violated the national government's new law outlining its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
This, after the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) sent him a letter asking him to explain his position and make an appearance the following week, on April 7, Tuesday.
Sotto was at the city hall, meeting with his team on reorganizing the city's hospital system, when an officer from the NBI arrived at around 4 pm to serve him the document.
Sotto said the letter did not actually specify what the issue was, and that it only asked him for an "explanation on the alleged violation of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (e.g. continuous tricycle operation)."
The mayor noted that the matter of tricycles – the only controversy that arose between him and the national government – was placed in parentheses as "e.g." which means "for example."
If the issue was indeed "continous tricycle operation," Sotto brushed it off.
"In the first place, hindi totoo 'yon. Nung sinabi nilang 'tigil,' pinatigil namin," he told reporters in an interview. (In the first place, that's not true. When they told us to stop, we stopped it.)
"From the start of the community quarantine, in all its variations, we have fully complied with all directives from the national government. One hundred percent, we have complied," he added.
Sotto also found the summons odd in that it supposes a violation that – if it really was about the tricycles – happened before the Bayanihan Act was passed on March 24, and signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on March 25.
"Wala po masyadong sense (It makes little sense)," Sotto told reporters, adding that it was not wrong to state an opinion, even if the national government ended up disagreeing with it.
Limited tricycle trips
When the "enhanced community quarantine" or lockdown of Luzon began on March 17, Sotto allowed tricycles to continue operating in Pasig on a limited basis – only to service medical workers, employees of essential businesses, the elderly, and the infirm who do not have their own vehicles.
These were people exempted from the lockdown, and who then had no means to get to their destinations because all public transportation was grounded.
"We're using our vehicles but it's not enough. Our risk assessment shows that we can't ban tricycles at this point. Health workers need to get to work. Some emergencies can only be reached by trike. For now, I am allowing tricycles to operate within Pasig. The Tricycle Operation and Regulatory Office will issue guidelines," Sotto tweeted on the first morning of the lockdown.
To ensure physical distancing to avoid contagion was practiced, Sotto limited the number of passengers to just two on each tricycle: one in the side car and another on the motorcycle behind the driver, where two passengers normally squeeze in.
People on social media suggested putting a plastic sheet between the driver's seat and the side car to further protect against contagion.
Sotto then appealed to the national government to approve of his directive, explaining that the absence of transportation for the poor may eventually cost lives – if those needing to be brought to hospitals or be rescued from emergencies are left with no option but to walk.
But by initially allowing tricycles to ply the streets, did the mayor not already violate the national government's directives?
"No. I said we follow all directives 100%," Sotto replied when a reporter asked the question.
Palace said 'no'
Malacañang rejected the mayor's request. On Wednesday night, March 18, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles questioned the idea, saying he could not see how social distancing could be practiced onboard a tricycle.
The next morning, March 19, Sotto said Pasig would comply with Malacañang's directive, and immediately grounded the city's tricycles.
The following night, March 20, Duterte came out on a televised message to the public, scolding local government units whom he said had implemented the lockdown differently from what the national government ordered.
"It is the national government that should call the shots.... If you go beyond the standards that we have set, you are abusing your authority and you know that it can lead to administrative cases or even worse, unless you stop what you are doing," Duterte said.
Duterte then ordered both the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior and Local government to closely monitor local officials.
"Criminal cases cannot be far behind," the President added.
Law not retroactive
The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act gave Duterte special powers meant to enable him to swiftly direct the government's response to the pandemic. It penalizes officials who would violate the national government's policies and directives on the matter.
However, Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III, the principal author of the measure, said it cannot be applied retroactively, meaning it cannot be used to punish any act that was committed before it was passed.
NBI will be well advised to be cautious in their interpretation of the law I principally authored. Any so called violation of RA 11469 can't be retroactive! — Tito Sotto (@sotto_tito) April 1, 2020
"NBI will be well advised to be cautious in their interpretation of the law I principally authored. Any so-called violation of RA 11469 can't be retroactive!" Senator Sotto tweeted on Wednesday evening.
The senator is Mayor Sotto's uncle, the brother of his father, movie star Vic Sotto.
Agree to disagree
For the young mayor, a pandemic is not the time to be defensive or protective of one's ideas.
"Siguro sa panahon ng krisis, hindi naman kailangan lahat tayo mag-agree eh. Kami sa lokal na pamahalaan, mayroon kaming perspektibo na maaaring wala sa national," he said. (Perhaps in a time of crisis, we don't all need to agree. We in the local government, we have some perspectives that the national government might not have.)
The younger Sotto has earned praise from many Filipinos on social media for his ingenuous efforts to get his city through the coronavirus crisis. When Duterte's allies started criticizing Sotto, the hashtag "Protect Vico" trended on Twitter.
This summons from the NBI means more work, Sotto told reporters, but he has no choice but to draft his response.
Does he think he is being singled out by the national government? "I'm not going to say that, pero naaabala kami (we are inconvenienced)," the mayor answered. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.