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Nueva Ecija gov blamed for delay in Cabanatuan HUC plebiscite

Groups calling for the conversion of Cabanatuan City to a highly urbanized city (HUC) hit re-electionist Nueva Ecija governor Aurelio Umali for opposing the move allegedly due to political interests. A city of 216,480 voters, Cabanatuan, if converted to an HUC, will no longer vote for provincial positions, as stated in the Local Government Code. Cabanatuan City is part of Nueva Ecija's third district, a known bailiwick of the Umalis. Umali had served as Nueva Ecija's third district representative from 2001 to 2007, while his wife Czarina Umali is the incumbent. His opponent for governor next year is first district Rep. Josie Manuel-Joson. An HUC status would make a city economically and politically independent from the province it is part of. A plebiscite will be conducted by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to determine if majority of the residents are in favor of the HUC status. “Kapag ang Cabanatuan naging HUC, ang diretsang epekto nito sa probinsya ay hindi na kami boboto sa lahat ng provincial election officials. Natagurian pa naman ang Cabanatuan ay balwarte nila,” assistant city administrator Eugene Minto said at a press conference on Monday. If converted, Cabanatuan would be the third in Central Luzon to have an HUC status after Angeles in Pampanga and Olongapo in Zambales. Politics Legal counsel JV Bautista, who is also the spokesperson of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), said politics should not be a factor in deciding whether or not Cabanatuan should be an HUC. “Nakikita po niya (Umali) na matatalo ang ‘no’ sa plebisito. Ayaw po niya na maging preview ‘yan ng eleksyon,” said Bautista, who is also running as UNA third district bet in Nueva Ecija, going against Czarina. Reached for a comment, Umali’s legal counsel George Garcia told GMA News Online that politics may be a factor in opposing the conversion. “To a certain extent, siyempre it’s more political and perhaps may effect ‘yun… Syempre kung ikaw ang gobernador ipaglalaban mo rin,” Garcia said in a phone interview. Plebiscite But Garcia noted that they are opposing the move more because the plebiscite will only cover Cabanatuan residents when it should cover all the residents of the province. He cited Section 10, Article X of the Constitution, which states that “[n]o province, city, municipality or barangay may be created… subject to the approval by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite in the political units directly affected.” He added that this is the concern of the province since Cabanatuan, as an HUC, would lose the province income and population. “That is a material and substantial reduction and changes of which the entire province under the constitution must be consulted by the plebiscite,” Garcia said. The Comelec already ruled in Minute Resolution 12-0797 that only the residents of Cabanatuan would participate in the plebiscite. According to the Section 452 of the Local Government Code, a city can be given an HUC status if it has a minimum population of 200,000, as certified by the National Statistics Office, and with the latest annual income of at least P50 million based on 1991 constant prices. Cabanatuan is the largest city in Nueva Ecija with a total population of 259,267 in 2007 and an annual income of P734.73 million in 2010. President Benigno Aquino III already proclaimed an HUC status to Cabanatuan last July 4. According to the proclamation, the plebiscite should be held 120 days after the proclamation date. The Comelec previously set the plebiscite on December 1, 2012, but it was postponed to an indefinite date after the May 2013 elections “in cognizance of the violence that ensued [during] the plebiscite period for the conversion of the City of Cabanatuan.” Violence Last Nov. 8, broadcaster Julius Caesar Cauzo of radio station dwJJ, owned by the family of Mayor Julius Cesar Vergara, was gunned down by motorcycle-riding gunmen — an incident believed to be related to the plebiscite. Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said they have received reports of violence from the Philippine National Police. “There were well grounded fears that those cases of violence may escalate if we push through with the plebiscite immediately. As is normal with cases like these, we usually take into consideration the local climate also. We don’t want any plebiscite marred with violence,” he said. Jimenez added that they postponed all plebiscites because they wanted to “harmonize” the policy. “We have also suspended plebiscites in other areas. Considering those factors, it is better to just harmonize the policy so that kung postponed sa iba, postponed na rin dito,” he said. Postponed The Comelec in the resolution added that they reset the plebiscite date until after next year’s elections since “the Commission is now in the thick of preparations for the May 13, 2013 elections.” In a motion for reconsideration submitted to the Comelec on Dec. 14, Bautista’s camp claimed Comelec has all the time to prepare for the midterm elections. He also claimed that Comelec is already prepared for the plebiscite. They are proposing the plebiscite date to be set on Jan. 4 next year, which coincided with the Comelec’s date for the raffle of party-list slots in the ballot paper. — KBK, GMA News