‘CONTRARY TO LAW’: MIWD sues Joe, 8 councilors over Prime Water franchise

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ILOILO City – Metro Iloilo Water District (MIWD) filed administrative and criminal complaints against Mayor Jose Espinosa III and eight Sangguniang Panlungsod (SP) members for granting a water distribution franchise to the Villar-owned Prime Water Infrastructure Corp.

The charges, filed at the Office of the Ombudsman, were for usurpation of official function, graft and corruption, culpable violation of the Constitution, grave abuse of authority, gross negligence, grave misconduct, and acts contrary to law.

Regulation Ordinance No. 2018-194, approved by the SP on Dec. 11, 2018, allowed Prime Water to operate a water supply system in this city.

The eight city councilors named as respondents along with Espinosa were Joshua Alim, Lyndon Acap, R Leone Gerochi, Mandrie Malabor, Plaridel Nava, Eduardo Peñaredondo, Liezl Joy Zulueta Salazar, and Candice Magdalane Tupas. They voted in favor of the franchise.

According to the MIWD, the city government of Iloilo had no authority to grant a water franchise. This power belonged solely to the National Water Resources Board (NWRB), it stressed, citing the case City of Batangas vs Philippine Shell Corp. and Shell Philippine Exploration. The Supreme Court ruled that the Water Code of the Philippines governed the ownership, appropriation, utilization, exploitation, development, conservation and protection of water resources, and the government’s power to control and regulate these water resources rested with the NWRB.

Citing Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code, the MIWD accused the respondents of usurping the function of the national government.

Worse, it said, they approved Prime Water’s franchise despite having been previously advised to the contrary by the Department of Interior and Local Government through DILG Opinion No. 18 that “local governments are bereft of authority to grant water and sanitation franchises.”

MIWD also noted that Mayor Espinosa endorsed the franchise without awaiting or securing the opinions of the Office of the Solicitor General and Department of Justice on the matter.

“The respondents clearly acted with manifest partiality, evident bad faith and gross inexcusable negligence,” stressed the MIWD.

The SP adopted the committee report of Councilor Nava – chairperson of the committee on public utilities – recommending the granting of a franchise to Prime Water.

The people were clamoring for “better quality of water supply and services,” read part of the committee report.

It added that “Iloilo City is in need of a more efficient water utility capable of constructing, establishing, commissioning, operating, and maintaining a water supply system that sufficiently addresses the public need…”

In his committee report, Nava cited Section 458 of the Local Government Code of 1991 which stated that the SP as legislative body shall enact ordinances and appropriate funds for the general welfare.

“The sanggunian’s authority to legislate local laws must be anchored on or should be designed to deliver basic services and facilities to promote the general welfare,” read part of the committee report.

City councilors who abstained from voting on Prime Water’s franchise were Lady Julie Grace Baronda, Jay Treñas, Ely Estante, Ma. Irene Ong, and Leila Luntao.

By granting Prime Water a franchise, according to MIWD, Espinosa and co-respondent councilors also undermined the water district’s joint-venture agreement for the rehabilitation, upgrading, expansion, development, operation and maintenance of the water system in Iloilo City and seven adjoining towns.

On Dec. 7, 2018 or four days before Prime Water’s franchise was approved, MIWD and Metro Pacific Water (MPW) signed a P12.25-billion 25-year joint venture agreement for the rehabilitation, expansion and improvement of the water district’s distribution system and wastewater management facilities.

MPW is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Metro Pacific Investment Corp. (MPIC), one of the country’s leading infrastructure investment company with interests across several sectors.

MIWD aims to expand its service coverage and deliver safe and potable water to 1.4 million people in the next 25 years.

MIWD’s service areas include Iloilo City and the Iloilo municipalities of Pavia, Oton, Maasin, Cabatuan, Santa Barbara, Leganes, and San Miguel./PN

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