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SC: All Nueva Ecija voters should take part in plebiscite for Cabanatuan as HUC

BAGUIO CITY - All registered voters of Nueva Ecija and not just those from Cabanatuan City should participate in a plebiscite converting the city into a highly urbanized city (HUC).

This was after the Supreme Court, in a summer en banc session here, granted a petition for certiorari filed by Nueva Ecija Gov. Aurelio Umali seeking to stop two resolutions of the Commission on Elections setting a date for the conduct of a plebiscite in which only registered voters of Cabanatuan would be allowed to vote.

In his petition, Umali said since the entire province of Nueva Ecija would be affected by the conversion, all the province's residents should be allowed to take part in the plebiscite and not just those from Cabanatuan City.

Voting 9-5-1, the high tribunal sided with Umali and declared as null and void Comelec Minute Resolution No. 12-0797 dated September 11, 2012 and Minute Resolution No. 12-0925 dated October 16, 2012.

"Additionally, Comelec is ordered to conduct a plebiscite for the purpose of converting Cabanatuan City into a Highly Urbanized City to be participated in by the qualified registered voters of Nueva Ecija within 120 days from the finality of this Decision," said the high court.

The decision was penned by Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr, with Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and Associate Justices Marvic Leonen, Martin Villarama, Jose Mendoza, and Bienvenido Reyes dissenting to the majority. Leonen wrote a dissenting opinion.

The Comelec had previously set the plebiscite, but it was postponed to an indefinite date after the May 2013 elections “in cognizance of... violence that ensued [during] the plebiscite period for the conversion of the City of Cabanatuan.”

In its resolution in 2012, the Comelec also said it was resetting the plebiscite date since “the Commission is now in the thick of preparations for the May 13, 2013 elections.”

President Benigno Aquino III granted HUC status to Cabanatuan on July 4, 2012, subject to a required plebiscite 120 days after the proclamation date.

According to the Local Government Code, if a city like Cabanatuan is elevated into an HUC – meaning it will be a politically and economically independent entity within the province – the city would not be able to vote for provincial positions like governor, the post being occupied by Umali.

This means Umali would lose a substantial number of votes from Cabanatuan, which is part of the third district and has long been a bailiwick of the Umalis. Umali had served as third district representative from 2001 to 2007, while his wife Czarina is the incumbent.

Largest city in Nueva Ecija

Cabanatuan is the largest city in Nueva Ecija province. It had a population of 259,267 in 2007, and an annual income of P734.73 million in 2010.

According to Section 452 of the Local Government Code, a city can be given HUC status if it has a minimum population of 200,000, as certified by the National Statistics Office. The city's latest annual income should also reach at least P50 million, based on 1991 constant prices.

If converted, Cabanatuan would be the third in Central Luzon to have HUC status after Angeles in Pampanga and Olongapo in Zambales. —KG, GMA News