POSTSCRIPT / April 25, 2004 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Can Manilans be fooled by circus and cosmetics?

MERE COSMETICS: Can the cosmetic “beautification” of Manila earn Mayor Lito Atienza another term? Certainly not, according to former Mayor Mel Lopez Jr. who is attempting a comeback under the banner of the oppositon Kilusang ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino.

Lopez said Manilans cannot be dazzled by the multi-colored circus lights that Atienza had installed in high-visibility locations. Behind this bright façade, he said, is the dark reality of neglect, twisted priorities and fiscal mismanagement.

The orbs of lights erected along a stretch of Roxas Blvd. attracted promenaders like moths during the Christmas holidays. But with the novelty having worn off, they now appear more like tired vaudeville lights.

Visiting the bayside early in the morning with the lights off and the plastic chairs piled up helter-skelter is like seeing an unkempt Ermita bar-girl in the full glare of the morning after.

The evening play of light and color appears absurd to most residents who also have to endure green (!) street lights along Adriatico, a tourist haunt in old Manila.

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COSTLY CIRCUS: It turned out, ironically, that the lighting effects of Atienza were not at all cheap. Reports filtering out of City Hall have it that that portion of Atienza’s flickerville now known as the Baywalk cost taxpayers P120 million.

Asked how much each multi-colored lamppost on Roxas Blvd. costs, Atienza declined to disclose its price. His excuse was that it was hard to calculate because the materials came from different sources. Tell that to the auditor!

While all this extravagant preoccupation with circus lights was going on, Lopez said, the city’s finances had slumped. Hospitals and clinics were running out of medicines and low-profile facilities fell into neglect as millions were being poured on cosmetics.

Guesting in a Manila Overseas Press Club forum, Lopez said the city under Atienza has now chalked up an P800-million debt, which will fall due after the spending spree of the election campaign.

For maintaining Atienza’s streetlights, Lopez said City Hall has to scrounge around for P400 million to pay arrears in its electric bills, among other obligations.

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SKEWED PRIORITIES: In contrast, Lopez recalled that when he stepped down from the mayoralty in 1992, the city had more than P1-billion surplus in the bank. He said the city’s financial health was a result of his improved revenue-collection and wise fiscal management.

Illustrating how solvent the city government was in his time, Lopez recalled that when a City Hall employee retired during his watch the retiree received his check for full payment of retirement benefits not later than on his last day in office.

Lopez said that Atienza’s skewed priorities are eroding the quality of life in the capital. Compared to its neighbors with more progressive leadership, he said Manila is mired in poverty, crime and drugs.

The seedy state of many sections of Manila and the thousands of homeless and hungry residents in the parks, sidewalks and bridges speak of the neglect the nation’s capital has fallen into, Lopez said.

Pollution is killing Manila bay, as it has killed the esteros. Garbage? Just look at the mountain of trash at the piers and the stinking mounds on street islands, away from the glitter of Roxas Blvd., he suggested.

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LOPEZ OPTIMISTIC: Asked about his chances of wresting back the mayorship, Lopez who hails from populous Tondo said he would win big in the first and the second districts and score an overall victory.

He banks on the support of former Mayor Alfredo Lim and incumbent Rep. Harry Angping and his ticket in the third district. Helping him in the fourth district are Vice Mayor Danilo Lacuna and congressional candidate Manuel Bagatsing, as well as senatorial candidate Ernesto Maceda.

In the fifth district, Lopez is supported by incumbent Rep. Joey Hizon and a full slate of candidates for councilors. In the sixth, he has his candidate Lou Veloso and a full lineup of councilors and seasoned ward leaders.

Running under the KNP, Lopez also sees the popularity of KNP standard bearer Fernando Poe Jr. as a plus factor in his campaign.

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BUT IS IT JUST?: The case of the three-term mayor of Mabalacat, Pampanga, running for a fourth term in apparent violation of the term limit in the Constitution and the Local Government Code is a golden opportunity for the Commission on Elections to set things right.

Urgent petitions are pending with the Comelec for the disqualification of Mayor Marino “Boking” Morales on the ground that he has already served three successive terms (from the election of 1995, to 1998 and on to 2001).

The case shows a disturbing pattern of legal maneuvering in the Regional Trial Court and the Comelec. Mabalacat voters are hoping the Comelec’s 2nd Division hearing the petitions will cut the rigmarole and put everybody in his proper place.

The Comelec must, and can, act fast because the law and the facts are clear. The case must be decided before the elections. A decision after May 10 or even after the incumbent (Morales) had stayed as holdover mayor (as what happened in 1998) will not be just.

A judicial ruling must not only be legal, but must be above all just.

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FOCUS ON 1998 POLLS: A lawyer of Morales wrote us yesterday telling us the background of the case. He did not say anything new, just reiterating their old argument that while Morales was elected mayor in 1995 and 2001, he was not elected in 1998.

As there are no questions about Morales’ serving after the 1995 and the 2001 elections, the bone of contention appears to be Morales’ status as mayor from 1998 to 2001, or the middle of the three successive terms in question.

In the May 1998 elections, reelectionist Morales was proclaimed winner by the Comelec office in Mabalacat. The loser, Anthony Dee, protested before the Regional Trial Court within the allowed period.

While the protest was pending before Judge Omar Viola of the Regional Trial Court Branch 57 of Angeles City, Morales continued in office as mayor. Complainant Dee was never able to take his oath. He did not serve as mayor and did not collect any salary.

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TYRANNY OF THE TRO: Morales was able to get the usual Temporary Restraining Order to prevent Dee from assuming office. Finally in April 2001, or one month before the end of the 1998-2001 term of the mayor, Viola ruled that Dee was the winner!

Of course, Morales ran to the Comelec to prevent Dee from taking over as mayor. More delays followed. The Comelec finally handed down a ruling affirming the court finding that Dee was the winner.

The trouble was that the Comelec decision was handed down only on Aug. 6, 2001, or a full three months AFTER the three-year (1998-2001) term of Dee was used up by Morales. That is how our courts and the Comelec could be slow and unjust at times.

Will the voters of Mabalacat be now penalized for this unhappy turn of events that robbed them of the mayor that they had elected in 1998? Did not Morales actually serve as mayor from 1998 to 2001? Will the three-term limit set by the Constitution be disregarded by twisting the law and abusing due process?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 25, 2004)

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