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Eleksyon 2013

The Comelec in NCR: Condemned offices and other woes

May 9, 2013 1:29am

(First of two parts)

It’s the homestretch to the May 13, 2013 midterm elections, and the field personnel of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) are now feeling the pressure of the last of its pre-election preparations. These include the final testing and sealing (FTS) of the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines, and coordinating and training the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) who will mainly administer matters on election day.

These tasks go alongside their continuing responsibility to instruct voters on what should be done before, during, and after the elections; monitor campaign activities; and enforce campaigning and campaign finance rules.

Recently, a team of PCIJ fellows did a series that revealed how, in 39 Comelec field offices in Luzon and the Visayas, Comelec field personnel suffer from poor working conditions and a shortage in basic resources – personnel, funds, office space, supplies and equipment – that prevent them from fully performing their duties in an effective and efficient manner.  

Intending to do a follow-up to that report, six PCIJ interns from April 22 to 29 visited 17 Comelec district offices in five cities in the National Capital Region or NCR: Manila (six district offices), Quezon City (six district offices), Pasay City (two district offices), Makati City (two district offices), and Marikina City (one office covering the city’s two districts). They found that unlike their counterparts in the regions, the Comelec field offices in the NCR do not seem to suffer from a shortage of manpower.

Unfortunately, though, that’s the only difference between the Commission’s field offices in Metro Manila and those in the regions. Indeed, despite their proximity to the head office, most Comelec field offices in the NCR likewise suffer from a shortage of funding and supplies, lack of office space, and poor working conditions.

This is rather unexpected as the poll body’s offices are located in the country’s most densely populated region, which serves as the government, financial, commercial, and educational center and from where many of the top officials of the land are propelled into office.

MANILA: Not enough staff, too many voters

The country’s capital has a population of 1,652,171 (as of the 2010 Census), making it second only to Quezon City’s 2,761,720. Manila, however, occupies an area of only 24.98 square kilometers, or less than a sixth of Quezon City’s 171.71 square kilometers. That makes Manila the most densely populated city in the country, with more than 66,140 inhabitants per square kilometer in 2010, according to the National Statistics Office.
The cheek-by-jowl situation in the city is mirrored in its six Comelec district offices that will have to cater to the needs of Manila’s 1,020,144 registered voters (as of 2010) residing in the city’s 14 municipalities.

Each Comelec office has to make do with roughly 50 square meters of office space. But the lack of any elbowroom is perhaps most acutely felt by the Manila Comelec 1st District office. With a voting population of over 208,397, the 1st District is the most vote-rich district in the city. Its voters all come from Tondo 1, which represents one-half of the municipality of Tondo (District 2 covers Tondo 2).

With such a large number of voters, Manila 1st District Election Assistant Gadi Rose Sinalubong says her office does not have enough space to accommodate clients, nor house its 28 personnel, equipment, and documents. The problem is compounded by District 1’s added responsibility to archive the records of Manila’s five other Comelec district offices.

Geriatrics facility

It probably doesn’t help that the Manila Comelec field offices occupy the second and third floors of an old building that used to be a Geriatrics Center or a hospital for the elderly. In fact, according to Jehan Lidasan-Marohombsar, election officer of Comelec Manila’s 6th District, the building was declared condemned sometime ago.

Despite the many problems of the Manila Comelec offices, however, lack of manpower is not among them, says Sinalubong. In fact, unlike its counterparts in the regions, which are severely undermanned, the Comelec district offices in Manila seem to have the opposite problem: too many personnel who cannot fit inside a minuscule office.

In the 5th District, Election Officer Narciso Rabe had to cut down the number of staff that the local government provided from 10 to five in order to free up space in the office. District 5 has 24 staff members: nine permanent, 10 casual, and five supplemental personnel provided by the city government. Sinalubong, for her part, allows that with one election officer, eight election assistants, and 19 election casuals, their office tends to get quite crowded, especially during the registration period.

The need for additional personnel actually arises only during the registration period. For instance, Manila Comelec 2nd District Election Assistant Ernesto D. Verdejo Jr. says that under normal circumstances, his office’s 25 staff members (one election officer, four election assistants, 10 job order casuals, and 10 election casuals provided by the city government) are able to perform the office’s tasks. But come registration period, those numbers prove pitiful. This is despite the fact that District 2 has the smallest voting population among Manila’s six districts at just 122,944 registered voters. Notes Verdejo: “For every election assistant, you will be assigned 30,000 registered voters.”

Piles everywhere

On a typical day, piles of documents and forms are stacked on tables, cabinets, and even the floor of the Comelec field offices in Manila. But during the registration period and issuance of voter’s IDs, the cramped situation is made worse by hundreds of voters flocking to the Comelec offices each day.

For other Comelec staff though, the building’s dilapidated state is worse than the limited office space. They think that it’s a threat not only to their health, but also to the offices’ equipment and documents.

The 3rd and 6th District offices, for instance, have to put up with leaks during the rainy season. This threatens to destroy the piles and boxes of documents strewn all over the office. “This building is way too old,” Election Assistant Monica Magsalin says.

Lidasan-Marohombsar, pointing to her small office which is in a bad state of disrepair, meanwhile comments, “As you can see, our office is not conducive and convenient as a working place.”

The building has three stories and is located near the LRT Central Station and other government offices such as the Manila City Hall, Office of the City Prosecutor, and Barangay Bureau. But it is barely noticeable because of its old façade.

State of disrepair

But more than the building’s old age, negligence has also caused the Manila Comelec offices to be in a sad state of disrepair.

Manila’s city government, which is responsible for the maintenance of the building, has not discussed any plans of renovating the Comelec office anytime soon, says Lidasan-Marohombsar.

In fact, Magsalin, who has been with Comelec Manila’s 3rd district for 20 years, says that she cannot even remember the last time the building was renovated. Rabe says that as far as he can remember, the building was last repaired almost six years ago.

Lidasan-Marohombsar for her part observes: “In other cities, it is way better. They provide everything. If there is a need for repair, they respond momentarily.

“It is not the same here in Manila.”

According to Rabe, they have requested the local government for a transfer to a newer building since the Comelec office is already condemned.

As of this writing, however, the city government has yet to take up the matter with Comelec. Rabe says, “We could have been transferred during (former Mayor Lito) Atienza’s term but the plan was postponed when his term ended.”

Besides providing the building for their offices, the Manila city government also pays for the Comelec field offices’ electric and water bills. Other than that, the city government provides little else to the Comelec field offices, which often finds support from the Comelec head office lacking as well.

According to 4th District Election Officer Maria Liza Carpina-Torres, the Comelec head office is supposed to pay for her office’s telephone bills, as well as provide a mobilization fund during the election period, and a quarterly budget of P6,000.

The mobilization fund from the Comelec head office is supposed to cover the transportation costs of each district for traveling to all the barangays in its constituency during the election period.

Yet with only a few weeks left before the May 13, 2013 polls, Rabe says his office is still waiting for its mobilization fund. He says that the Comelec 5th District has thus been relying on the contributions of its staff members since the start of the election period, just so the regular visits and distribution of information materials to barangays can be done.

Budget delays

It certainly hasn’t helped that the head office often does not release the quarterly budget, which is supposed to be used for purchasing office supplies of the district offices.

“This year we haven’t received any budget yet,” says Carpina-Torres, adding that the main office last released the P6,000 quarterly budget to her office in June 2012.

The process of liquidating the funds could have contributed to the delay in fund releases. “If you don’t liquidate,” she explains, “they don’t release the budget.”

This often leads to a shortage in office supplies. For instance, Sinalubong says that the supplies provided by the Comelec head office are not sufficient for their archiving, registration, and day-to-day office work. Sinalubong says that the field staff sometimes “pays for the extra supplies because we think it is also for the good of our fellow Filipinos.”

The 2nd District field office shares the problem. Election Assistant Verdejo Jr. says the national office sends them supplies “monthly, sometimes quarterly depending on the budget.” But there are times, he says, when their supplies run short. In such instances, Verdejo says he and his colleagues spend their own money to purchase office supplies.

Despite the shortage in supplies, the Comelec offices in Manila’s first and second districts can still count themselves lucky; at least they receive provisions from the Comelec head office.  Other districts have not received anything at all from the Comelec head office – whether in cash or in the form of office supplies -- for the past few months.

The 5th District’s Rabe says that he and his staff have taken to spending their own money to purchase their office supplies because the main office told them “there are no stocks available.” Rabe says that his office is entitled to receive supplies from the Comelec head office quarterly.

At the 6th District office, Election Officer Lidasan-Marohombsar says that since she assumed her post there in October 2012, she has not received a single centavo of the P3,000 quarterly budget for office supplies that her office is supposed to get.

“We have been spending our own money to buy supplies needed in the office,” she says. But she also quickly clarifies, “We don’t spend too much all the time since we can get some supplies from the main office.”

Dipping into their personal funds

Still, this quasi-solution of the field office staff spending their own money to make up for the shortage in budget for supplies seems to be gaining ground in other Comelec district offices in Manila.

In the 3rd District, Election Assistant Monica Magsalin says that most of the supplies such as bond papers, envelopes, and paper clips are bought with the staff’s own money.

Over at District 4, the Comelec field office has even devised an alternative to address the shortage. “We use the proceeds from our small photocopying business in order to make up for the shortage of supplies,” says Carpina-Torres. But even with their own business, she says, the District 4 staff sometimes still find themselves dipping into their personal funds to pay for office supplies.

The many woes of the Comelec’s six field offices in Manila have prompted Lidasan-Marohombsar to note that they are “so deprived” compared to other cities in Metro Manila. “Other cities have transportation and even gas allowances,” she says. “Manila does not have these services.” She says that the field officers have to use their personal vehicles just to be able to move around their districts.

Rabe and Carpina-Torres meanwhile recall that the Comelec field staff used to receive a P2,500 monthly allowance from the city government. But that stopped when Mayor Alfredo Lim took office. Even though Carpina-Torres says that they “can actually request” such an allowance, they “don’t request anymore…since it was cut.”

“We don’t request from the LGUs,” she says. “If you request something from them, they might ask something in return.”

For Rabe, this is just as well so that the Comelec field personnel can avoid any bias toward the incumbent officials. “Wala kaming utang na loob sa kanila, wala rin silang utang na loob sa amin (We don’t owe them anything, and they don’t owe us anything either),” he says.

With the inadequate support from both the Comelec head office and the city government, the Comelec field personnel in Manila have come to rely on each other, as well as on their own creativity, to get things done. Quips Rabe, “Diskarte na lang namin ’yan (We count on our own quick thinking).”

QUEZON CITY: Local government as source of succor

It’s a good thing that the Quezon City government seems to be responsive to the needs of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in the field. After all, a majority of the Comelec district offices in Quezon City seem to be suffering from inadequate funding and supplies from the Commission's head office in Intramuros.

The poll body has six district offices in Quezon City, which has the largest population among the 16 cities and one municipality in the National Capital Region. In fact, nearly a quarter of the NCR’s population resides in Quezon City. Less than half (1,083,912 per 2013 Comelec data) of Quezon City's 2,761,720 residents (per the 2010 Census), however, are registered voters.

There used to be only four Comelec district offices in Quezon City. But because of District 2’s huge population, President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III last July signed a new law that divided the district into three. The law, Republic Act No. 10170, will be in effect in the upcoming May 13, 2013 mid-term elections.

The two new districts carved out of District 2 are now known as Districts 5 and 6. Like the four other districts in Quezon City, Districts 5 and 6 will each have to elect a district representative for Congress and six city councilors. Altogether, Quezon City's six districts will have 143 candidates running for congressional, mayoral, vice mayoral, and city council positions in the 2013 polls.

Because of the sheer size of its voting population and the number of candidates vying for various elective posts, Election Officer Enrique Santos of Comelec Quezon City District 3 says that the budget from the head office is usually insufficient and “always late.”

At times thus, he finds himself reaching into his own pocket to pay for office supplies. But while Santos concedes that he can have the expenses reimbursed by the Comelec head office, he says he sometimes does not even bother because the reimbursement process takes too long.
Office space okay

The Quezon City government seems to make up for the shortcomings of the Comelec head office, though. At the very least, office space is not an issue with the Comelec district offices all between 100 square meters and 300 square meters in size.

Comelec officers also say that the city government provides them with a lot of what they need, such as office supplies, furniture, and equipment. For instance, each of the six Comelec district offices has a television set and air-conditioning units.

The city government also provides them much-needed services to make their work easier, such as office renovation and transportation. In fact, during the interviews for this story, the offices of Quezon City Comelec’s Districts 5 and 6 were being renovated and furnished.

All six Comelec offices in Quezon City are located inside the City Hall compound, behind the Hall of Justice. The offices of Districts 1 and 3 stand across Districts 5 and 6. The offices of Districts 2 and 4, meanwhile, are housed in another building, just a stone’s throw away from those of the four other districts.

District 2 Election Officer Shiela Rojas-Rafanan even says that the support provided by the city government to the local Comelec is "above average." She says, however, that she asks the city government for office supplies only when these are "badly needed." District 1 Election Officer Jovencio Balanguit, meanwhile, says that aside from office supplies, the Quezon City government also gives them an "allowance."

The LGU has proven generous as well when it comes to providing workspace for the Comelec field offices. By Quezon City standards, the District 1 office is already among the smallest at 100 square meters. It houses quite comfortably the office's 21 staff members – six of them permanent, 10 election casuals hired for the election period, and five supplementary personnel from the local government unit (LGU) – who will serve 186,535 voters from District 1's 37 barangays.

Staff concerns

District 1’s Balanguit seems to have no complaints about the size of his workforce.

Not so Rojas-Rafanan of District 2. Being the largest district in Quezon City with 234,540 voters coming from only five barangays, Rojas-Rafanan says her 38-member team is still undermanned to address all the needs of the constituents, especially during election season.

It’s cold comfort for her that District 2's four permanent staff, 22 election casuals, and 12 supplementary personnel occupy a 300-square meter office, one of the biggest among the six Comelec district offices in Quezon City.

"It's really hard for us," she says. "Everyone is multi-tasking.” Four of those barangays (Commonwealth, Batasan Hills, Payatas, and Holy Spirit) are on the National Statistics Office's seven most populous barangays in the NCR.

District 6 Acting Election Officer Enriqueta Danieles shares Rojas-Rafanan’s staff concerns.  “As a new district here in Quezon City," she says, "everyone in the office must multi-task to finish our work.”

Occupying an office space of some 150 square meters, District 6 has nine election assistants, six election casuals, and staff from the LGU undergoing on-the-job training. They must see to the needs of the district's 158,864 voters spread across 11 barangays.

The rest of the Comelec officers say that their manpower is adequate. They say they usually need additional personnel only during election season.

District 5 election staff Jerome Tipon also seems to be satisfied with the support that his office gets from the Comelec head office – unlike the Comelec personnel in the city’s other districts.

Tipon says the head office, just like the LGU, never fails to provide for his office's needs such as office supplies, furniture, and transportation whenever these are requested. This is despite the fact that District 5, whose 17 personnel will be administering 192,921 voters across 14 barangays, is a new district, Tipon adds.

His observation is shared by District 4 Election Assistant Rene Simeon, who says that the Comelec head office, just like the LGU, is "very supportive" of them. Like District 2, District 4 occupies one of the largest office spaces among the six districts. Its 300-square-meter office houses 15 staff members, five of them permanent personnel and 10 casual. They must see to the needs of 180,979 across 38 barangays.
With only 130,263 registered voters spread out across 37 barangays, District 3 is the smallest district in Quezon City. Despite this, District 3 still counts 20 staff members, five of them election assistants, 11 election casuals, and four supplementary personnel from the LGU. They are housed in the District's 150-square-meter office. — PCIJ, May 2013
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