EXPLAINER: Saavedra wants City Council to ‘appoint’ VM Rama as mayor. It cannot. But it can look into Labella’s frequent leaves and C.A. Casas’s authority.

WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE. Last September 8, Crisologo Saavedra, who calls himself “an advocate against corruption and protector of taxpayers,” filed a letter-complaint with the Cebu City Council, asking it to investigate Mayor Edgardo Labella for his frequent leaves of absence and his administration’s bidding on a P248-million traffic light systems and the second phase of the city’s CCTV project and the “excess of authority” delegated to City Administrator Floro Casas Jr.

Saavedra had blown the whistle on, among others, the overpriced decorative lamp posts bought for the 2007 Asean summit and Cebu Capitol’s 2008 P98-million purchase of the Balili property in Naga City. A number of people were convicted of corruption in the lamp posts deal while the accused were acquitted in the Balili transaction.

Because of Saavedra’s complaint, the Sanggunian last September 15 invited him to its next session. It wants more information on his allegations of violations of bidding rules, Mayor Labella’s absences, and “usurpation of authority” by his city administrator.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED. Last Monday, September 20, Mayor Labella again went on sick leave, until October 7. This will be his sixth leave of absence since his May 2-to-June 6 stay in the hospital.

He was supposed to be working from home during the past two weeks but he had not been seen or heard, even digitally, since he ended his last sick leave. A news photo showed a vague and darkened image of the mayor on the back seat of a car during a supposed drive-by at City Hall. The public learned from his son Jaypee Labella that his dad “suffered a stroke as a result of his sepsis last June,” a fact not disclosed before.

Last Thursday, September 16, Saavedra sent another letter-complaint, this time zeroing in on Mayor Labella’s work as mayor and delegation of authority to City Administrator Floro Casas Jr. And he asked the Sanggunian to “appoint” Vice Mayor Michael Rama to “take over as mayor,” as Labella is “physically not qualified to run the city and protect its interest.”

Saavedra alleged that the mayor “fully delegated his authority to run City Hall business to a non-elected official.” He cited news reports that Labella’s son admitted that the mayor suffered a stroke and could no longer talk and walk. Saavedra accused him of “hiding” his real physical condition to justify his absences.

SANGGUNIAN CAN’T APPOINT RAMA. Under the Local Government Code, which Saavedra cited along with Code of Conduct for Government Officials and Employees, the vice mayor automatically takes over in case of permanent or temporary incapacity of the mayor.

The problem is determining if the mayor’s temporary incapacity has become permanent. Mayor Labella’s illness, most people assume, is just temporary. In the provision on temporary incapacity, it is terminated by the “written declaration by the mayor that he has reported back to office.”

In other words, it’s the mayor’s call. But what if he is not actually physically fit though he is supposed to be working from home but may not be actually working? What if someone else is deciding and saying things for the mayor, which Labella didn’t decide or say?

The law does not say it but the City Council may well look into the real situation. That will help to uphold the purpose of the law, which is to see to it that the sitting mayor is not incapacitated.

The City Council cannot legally install Rama to Labella’s position without the mayor declaring his temporary incapacity, as he does each time he files a leave of absence and returns. It may set in motion though the events that can lead to having a “fit” mayor at the helm.

WHAT CITY COUNCIL CAN DO. As part of its oversight function, the Sanggunian can find out if the mayor is not incapacitated to work, though from home. Under the general welfare clause and in aid of legislation, the City Council can access to facts to make an informed stand on issues affecting public interest. Such as whether to urge the mayor to show and prove his actual state of health, as certified by doctors, and if it finds physical or mental incapacity, maybe to ask the mayor to yield to his vice mayor. In these cases too, the City Council may seek the help of the office of the president, which through DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government), supervises the LGU.

The problem is the political factor. Would the Barug majority in the Sanggunian push the mayor, the party’s top elected official, to do what he or the people around him do not want, that is, to disclose his true state of health? Would they dare to ask for doctors attesting to soundness mind and body, or as VM Rama puts it, “body and soul”?

CASAS’S CASE. The City Council, alerted by COA findings on the number of checks not bearing the mayor’s signature, earlier tackled the question of City Administrator Casas having too much authority that Labella delegated to him.

But the majority got its way by blocking the minority move to revoke the authority given to Casas by the City Council. At the time, the compromise was for the Sanggunian to request Rama to ban Casas from signing whenever the vice mayor sits as acting mayor.

The councilors didn’t resolve the issue on the amount of authority the city manager can do in the mayor’s place. As BOPK Councilors Eugenio Gabuya Jr. and Franklyn Ong separately pointed out, Casas may be allowed to sign routine documents and payments but not multimillion-peso contracts or checks. They cited the same basis the government auditors feared: accountability may be confused or lost.

Casas is not usurping authority; it’s given him on a platter. What the City Council can do is to limit the platter’s content.