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The Comelec in NCR: Begging for office supplies, dependent on city hall

(Part 2 of 2) MAKATI: ‘Conjugal toilet’ for ‘fire station’ crew In the May 10, 2010 elections, the “Ganito kami sa Makati, sana ganito rin sa buong bansa ” campaign slogan was a hit that helped propel its city mayor to the second highest position in the country. But that slogan was likely not referring to the two field offices in Makati of the Commission on Elections (Comelec). The Makati Comelec offices in Makati are housed on the second floor of the Makati Central Fire Station on the corner of Ayala Avenue extension and Malugay Street. Surrounded by well-designed and expansive edifices, the building’s many shortcomings become even starker. “It’s really old,” says lawyer Feldon Sadang, District 2 election officer, referring to the building that has peeling white paint in its hallways. He says that compared to the Comelec offices in the cities of Taguig, Pasig, and Manila, the “decrepit” building is the worst Comelec office he has been to. The condition of the office is so bad that some voters would rather not go to the Comelec if they had a choice. “They [voters] don’t like to come here,” says District I Election Assistant Arnulfo Sy-Changco. “If we have an outstation registration, that’s the time they want to register.”  He adds that the voters in his District would complain, “‘When we go up, we are already so tired because the stairs are very steep. Inside, the office smells funky’.” With a total income of P10.734 billion in 2011 and nearly a billion pesos in Internal Revenue Allotment,(IRA) share according to its official website, the Makati City government is expected, at the least, to be able to provide well-built and well-equipped government offices to see to the needs of its 529,039 constituents. By all indications, however, the city government is falling short of providing a suitable office space for the Comelec field offices in the city as required by the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa Bilang 881). The 120-square-meter office of District 1 sees to the needs of 193,781 registered voters, among them residents of Forbes Park, Dasmariñas Village, Bel-Air, Magallanes and other areas known to be the subdivisions of the wealthy. The nearly identical District 2 office, meanwhile, services 205,000 registered voters residing in 13 barangays that include Cembo, Comembo, Pembo and others areas where “Makati residents with low-income reside,” Sadang says. Late registrants Interestingly, unlike District 1 residents, those from District 2 seem to find no problem going to the Comelec office. In fact, Sadang says his office faces the “consistent problem” of registrants flocking to their office in the last few weeks of the registration period. Sadang also says his office’s current location is better than being housed inside the premises of the city hall. This is despite the rundown condition of the building, which, Sy-Changco explains, is a symbol that the Comelec is not indebted to the incumbent officials. “We are not pressured,” he says. “We are not pampered. The way you look at the office, you will see if they are loved or not.” Asked what improvements he wanted to see in his office, Sy-Changco says that the “conjugal” comfort room, which is shared by male and female employees, needs to be fixed. But he says he is satisfied with the size of his office, which is “just enough” for his 17 personnel, nine of them contractual employees. They will have to monitor 26 candidates vying for various elective posts in the district. With only seven election assistants in District 1, each election assistant will have to see to the needs of 35,000 voters. But Sy-Changco is not too concerned about that kind of ratio, saying that the Comelec head office has addressed the problem through “emergency recruitment” or giving them supplemental personnel. More personnel By comparison, District 2 has a slightly larger number of personnel: seven permanent staff, seven casual employees, and five supplemental staff. The two Comelec district offices in Makati get their budget from the Comelec head office, which also provides them with office supplies. Sy-Changco adds, though, that the city government provided District 1’s chairs and desks. (District 2’s office furniture came from the head office.) “Generally, our office is okay,” Sy-Changco says, adding that they do not lack equipment. In fact, they even have a line printer that makes the overwhelming paperwork easier. The District 1 office has four air-conditioning units, a water dispenser, and a refrigerator. While there is a separate room for storing files, stacks of papers are nevertheless piled on the staffs’ desks. But there are times when the funds from the Comelec head office aren’t quite enough to cover all the expenses of the two offices. In such cases, Sy-Changco says he and his colleagues either use their own money or ask assistance from non-government organizations and watchdogs like the Parish-Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). Sometimes they request from the city government, especially when there are “emergency purchases” needed. But he says that while his office accepts aid from the city government, he is wary of asking for help too often from the incumbents. “That’s dangerous,” says Sy-Changco. “They might ask for many favors in return.” Sadang, for his part, says that it is only in “very exceptional cases that we request from the city of Makati.” This is even as he admits that his office sometimes runs out of funds. Without revealing the exact amount, Sadang also says that while his office receives a mobilization fund from the main office, this is only during election time. He remarks, “I cannot say that we are well-provided when it comes to supplies because sometimes we use our own money to get things done, especially those that are urgent.”   ‘Sad reality’ Still, he clarifies that the bad condition of their office does not affect their work. “As long as the supplies are coming,” he says, “we are (content) with what we have.” He notes, though, that it is hard for Comelec field personnel to remain “100 percent independent” from the local government, especially for those whose offices are housed inside the city hall. “There’s a certain degree of control by the LGU,” he says. “You cannot eliminate that. That is a sad reality that you have to accept unless you put a robot there.” Sadang, however, says that the Binays are so well-entrenched in Makati that they do not need to wield influence on Comelec. “Makati residents will always vote (the Binays),” he says. “They don’t need to pander to Comelec.” Both Sadang and Sy-Changco say that the most pressing need that they want the Comelec head office to address is the financial needs of the poll body’s employees. Says Sy-Changco: “Our only request is for our salary to be increased. That would be better than having more personnel who are not doing any work and receiving low pay.” Sadang hopes that a wage raise would be among the reforms that the Comelec head office will institute. According to Sadang, lawyers in Comelec “do not receive RATA (Representation and Transportation Allowance). We do not have allowances.” In other government agencies, he says, the RATA ranges from P10,000 to P30,000 depending on the lawyer’s position in the agency.   MARIKINA CITY: Public market tenant, halo-halo work The voter registration period for the May 13, 2013 polls already ended on October 31, 2012. Filipinos aging 18 years and above were given three years to register in their respective districts – an ample time to decide whether one wants to matter in the midterm political census or not. Yet just a fortnight ago, two Marikina residents in their early 30s arrived at the city’s Comelec field office asking if they could still register for the upcoming elections. The staff explained that they could no longer do so, since the registration period had ended seven months ago. The two Mariqueños then went home, adding to the number of citizens who will not be able to exercise their right to vote next Monday. That is not a rare scenario in the Marikina Comelec office, says Election Assistant Nellie Gama. “There are many people like them,” she says. “They want to register even if the registration period is already over. We could have had a larger number of voters if they just registered earlier.” Marikina City, widely known as the “Shoe Capital of the Philippines,” has 424,150 residents, per the 2010 Census of Population and Housing by the National Statistics Office. Its population ranks 11th among the National Capital Region’s 16 cities and one municipality.  But the city’s total number of registered voters has reached only 214,108, or just slightly more than half of the city’s population. Gama says that some residents may not have been well-informed or may not have cared enough to know the affairs of Comelec, which may have caused their failure to register for the upcoming elections. Public market tenant The poll body has long been advocating against vote buying and vote selling. It is thus rather ironic that the Comelec field office in Marikina is located on the third floor of the city’s Public Market Building. But then it shares the floor with other local government offices like the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Labor and Employment. Adjacent to the Comelec office is the Public Market Function Hall and the Bingo Bonanza Center. Gama says that the City Hall, which is located just a few blocks away, has no room for them. The Comelec’s location is particularly problematic for senior citizens and persons with disabilities (PWDs) who, Gama explains, have a hard time climbing up the stairs to the third floor. But even its own staff find it hard to transport office supplies from the Comelec main office to the Comelec Marikina office. Says Gama: “We just consider climbing up to the office everyday as exercise.” Still, she says that the Comelec Marikina office has always been geographically detached from City Hall. A Comelec Marikina employee for almost 20 years now, Gama recalls the time when the field office was located inside the Marikina Sports Complex. That was back in 1994, when she started working for Comelec. She says the field office was transferred to the third floor of the Public Market Building when its construction was completed in 1997. “We really want to be transferred to a new location,” Gama says. “It would be better if it will be in the City Hall, hopefully, no higher than the second floor so that senior citizens will not have a hard time climbing.” Not enough room Under Article 7, Section 55 of the Omnibus Election Code, the local government is supposed to provide a “suitable” place for the office of the local Comelec. Gama says they have already requested for their transfer to a better location.   But location is hardly Marikina Comelec’s only problem. Its office, which sees to the needs and keeps the files of Marikina’s two districts, is barely 10x30 square meters in size. It can barely fit all its 19 personnel. The election officer has a separate room inside the office while the rest of the area is divided among the voters’ information desk, visitors’ waiting area, and the employees’ tables and chairs. The biometrics room, where election documents are kept, has an estimated area of only 4 by10 square meters. The Comelec office is definitely no place for claustrophobes. Employees and visitors literally rub each other’s shoulders when walking along the spaces between desks. Piles and piles of election documents are stacked on each desk. But Gama says that despite the lack of space, bad air does not circulate around the office, literally and figuratively. The office is well-lit and well-ventilated. With four air-conditioning units and two electric fans facing the visitors’ waiting area, the summer’s heat is barely felt inside the office. ‘Halo-halo’ work Comelec Marikina’s staff complement – one election officer, five election assistants, six Comelec casuals, and seven supplemental employees from the LGU – is “quite proportionate” to the number of voters in the city, says Gama. City Election Officer Anthonette Soriano-Aceret spearheads the 19-person team. Since there is only one office and one set of staff for the city’s two districts, Gama says that their work is “halo-halo”. This means that each personnel has no permanent district assignment. Rather, says Gama, they all work for the two districts, which get “equal treatment” from the Comelec staff. She adds that they have been requesting the city government to provide each district with its own office and own set of personnel. But she concedes that the impact of having only one office and one set of personnel for the two districts is not really “big” as there are not too many differences between the two districts anyway. District 1 covers nine barangays, while the remaining seven belong to District 2. Despite having a smaller number of barangays, District 2 has 30,000 more voters than District 1 because the city’s most populous barangays – Malanday and Tumana – are part of District 2. In District 1, there is only one candidate for congressman and 14 bets for the city council. District 2, meanwhile, has two candidates for congressman and 26 bets for city councilors. Marikina City has three candidates running for mayor and two for vice mayor. In terms of funding and supplies, the Marikina Comelec does not seem to share the problems of its counterparts in the region. Perhaps that is because the Marikina City government plays a large part in providing for the needs of the local Comelec. Aside from paying the electric bills and covering the other “urgent needs” of the Comelec field office, the Marikina City government shoulders the transportation of office supplies from the Comelec main office in Intramuros, Manila to the city’s field office. The city government also provides for the Comelec’s basic office supplies, says Gama. But she says that she does not know exactly how much the city government’s 2013 budget allocation for her office is. PASAY CITY: Pressure mounts as poll day nears Compared to neighboring Manila, Pasay City’s number of voters is quite small. Pasay City’s 392,869 residents (as of the 2010 census) – of which 247,369 are registered voters -- are distributed across 201 barangays split into two districts. District 1 comprises 94 barangays with 127,082 voters, while District 2 has 107 barangays and 120,287 voters. This might be the reason why the election officers heading the Comelec’s two districts offices in the city say that they have enough manpower to handle the upcoming May 13, 2013 midterm elections. But Feliciano Aringay, Election Officer for District 1, prefers to look at his staff complement this way: “We cannot equate the work with the number of registered voters. It has something to do with what are the functions we need to perform.” Pasay City Comelec’s 1st District has a total of 18 personnel: an election officer, six election assistants plus 11 casual/contractual employees. The smaller 2nd District, meanwhile, has 17 employees, six of them permanent and 11 casual/contractual. In addition, the 2nd District has extra personnel undergoing an on-the-job-training program in their office. With only a few weeks remaining before the elections, the Pasay City Comelec personnel – like their colleagues elsewhere in the metro and the rest of the country – are feeling the pressure of the pre-election tasks that they need to accomplish, such as training the teachers and supervisors who will serve as the Board of Election Inspectors on election day. Time pressure aside, the two Comelec offices in Pasay City seem to share the same woes as their counterparts in the NCR: inadequate funding and office supplies. Tight budget Both Aringay and his District 2 counterpart, Frances Aguindadao, say that the Comelec main office provides them a regular budget, but both say they do not have any idea just how much is allotted for their offices. In most cases, Aringay explains, the budget for certain activities is coursed through the Comelec regional office. Both Districts 1 and 2 have also received a mobilization fund from the Comelec head office. That fund is supposed to last them until the end of the election period. The head office also provides a separate budget for voters’ information such as leaflets. Money is tight in the field offices most days, but especially so during election season. Aringay says there are times when he and his staff have had to dip into their own pockets just so they could implement election-related activities. But Aringay refuses to see this as a problem, calling it “a challenge” instead. Says Aringay: “Of course, we have a function to perform and we do not want budget to reflect our performance.” Aside from cash, the Comelec main office provides office supplies to the two district offices in Pasay every six months. Aguindadao says, however, that these do not suffice, given the amount of paper work that the district offices have to complete.  That’s why Aguindadao says the election officer should be resourceful and find a way to get the job done, such as by going to the neighboring office to ask for a ream of bond paper, or by asking the city government for additional supplies. In this aspect, the Comelec field offices in Pasay City seem to be better off than their counterparts elsewhere. Besides footing the electric bills, the city government appears to provide the local Comelec not only with a spacious office, but also adequate office equipment and furniture. The building that the two Comelec field offices in Pasay City occupy used to be a one-story structure located just outside the city hall. The city government repaired it last December when the local Comelec submitted a request for renovation, which was consequently approved. Aside from adding an additional floor, the file room in the District 2 office was also improved. Comelec Districts 1 and 2 now occupy a 100-square meter office each, which are equipped with air conditioning units, electric fans, and television sets. The renovation budget, however, was not enough to cover improvements on the comfort room and the small pantry for the staff, Aguindadao says. Then again, when Aguindadao submitted a request to the city government in 2011, District 2 did receive a photocopier machine, a new conference table, and a new set of office chairs – after two years. It took that long for her request to be approved because of several procedures and requirements. “If you wish to request for something,” observes Aguindadao, “you’ll have to wait for the next budget hearing.” That could mean that it may take a while before the glass door at the entrance to the District 1 office will be repaired. The door has become detached from its hinges, leaving the office wide open to intruders. Aringay says he is going to submit a request to the city government to have the door fixed, but is not about to hold his breath over seeing a quick response. “We want it to be fixed right away,” he says. “Of course we have to comply with the requirements that they would require of us.” – PCIJ, May 2013