“The height of irony” is how Dagupan City Mayor Belen Fernandez described the opposition to the approved plan to move their City Hall to a new location. According to the Mayor, there would be no need for the transfer in the first place, had the previous Mayor not engineered a highly irregular transaction during his term.
“Had former Mayor Benjie Lim honored the terms of this agreement, we would have an updated and functioning City Hall by now,” explained Fernandez. “He had a chance to cement his legacy, but instead, he and his allies orchestrated perhaps the most infamous act in Dagupan’s political history. Curiously, it is now those very same allies making noise about the current relocation plan,” she added.
Rather than begin repurposing the McAdore property to serve as the new City Hall, Lim instead put it up for sale at P70 million, which was significantly lower than both public and private zoning values and appraisal. Fernandez, who was then serving as Vice Mayor, refused to sign off on the sale, pointing out that even the most conservative valuation of the property was pegged at P180 million.
The “Judas 9”
Amidst this disagreement about the sale of the McAdore property, then-Vice Mayor Fernandez was given an award by a US-based organization. During her overseas trip, Lim called for an “emergency session”, which included the president of the league of barangays, the SK City Federation president, and a handful of his allies at the city council. In a matter of exactly 11 minutes (per record), the group passed a resolution giving Lim blanket authority to sell the McAdore property.
“The public backlash was almost immediate,” Fernandez recalled. “The people of Dagupan understood what was going on, and why the parties were so desperate to rush the sale of the property at a disadvantage. The local media coined the term ‘Judas 9’ to collectively name those who were involved in this travesty, and the label has stuck ever since,” she added.
Despite a ruling from the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) citing the authority to sell was illegal and a court’s issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order to stop the sale, the property was still procured (although this remains in disputable) for P119 million.
The project, which will be built on fully donated land, will cause a multiplier effect to a new growth area. Thousands of new jobs will thus be generated for Dagupenos, primarily the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), service, manufacturing, and IT sectors.
Lessons from the Past
It is precisely because of this experience that the current Mayor has taken every possible step to ensure full transparency and lawfulness in the stages leading to the new City Hall. First on the agenda was establishing a solid procedural and legal basis to even begin planning for the relocation.
“Whereas before, the basis for moving our City Hall was purely observational – it was very old, highly overcrowded, and severely dilapidated – now we have an actual approved Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) to back it up,” Fernandez noted. “
Crafting the CLUP involved extensive consultation with various government agencies and private sector groups, covered by no less than four public hearings. It was the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) who documented the need for a new City Hall, and the best locations for it.”
These locations had to conform to Section 11 of the Local Government Code, which states that factors relating to geographical centrality, accessibility, availability of transportation and communication facilities, drainage and sanitation, development and economic progress, need to be considered.
When the Pantal-Lucao area met all the criteria, Fernandez made sure that the city council approved the location. It was only then that an open invitation was sent to landowners to fully donate a property to the city government. Remarkably, it was Fernandez’ own younger brother who heeded the call and fully turned over the rights of a 1.2 hectare property to the city government.
“Even though it was a full donation to the city government, I still needed to make sure that it was above board because he is a member of my family,” explained Fernandez.
Accordingly, the local government secured a legal opinion from the Commission on Audit, who saw absolutely no violations with the donation.
Involving the People
Despite securing a clear mandate from the city council, Fernandez decided to make the plan even more transparent and directly involve her constituents. This was done through 6 clustered barangay consultations, which presented the City Hall relocation project in a clear, step-by-step manner with a question and answer portion. As expected, all the clusters approved the transfer.
“We needed to go through this level of due diligence because the people of Dagupan still recall the McAdore episode, and how a new City Hall was used as a vehicle for dishonesty,” Fernandez stated. “Step-by-step compliance, audits, and checks and balances at every stage is the only way to banish the spectre of past corruption. Dagupan is now a major economic center, and we will make sure to give the people the City Hall that they deserve. More importantly, we will make sure to do it the right way,” she concluded.