The vice mayor and eight councilors of La Trinidad, Benguet will be suspended for 90 days in batches in relation to the graft charge filed by Baguio Midland Courier staff member Jimmy Laking.
Benguet Regional Trial Court Branch 62 Presiding Judge Danilo Camacho’s order is considered as a “victory for press freedom” after the municipal council declared Laking as persona non grata or unwanted from entering the town council office for his alleged unfair reportage. Human rights lawyer Joris Dacawi said the officials’ suspension “strengthens protection for media practitioners against abusive government officials.”
Camacho ruled in his order that the first batch to be suspended will be councilors Jim Botiwey, Roderick Awingan and Francis Lee while the second batch will be Councilors Henry Kipas, Horacio Ramos Jr., and Von Ryan Tauli.
Vice mayor Romeo Salda will join councilors Arthur Shontogan, Estrella Adeban and Robert Namoro in the third batch.
Sangguniang Kabataan Federation president Brenden Quintos was not included in the complaint as he did not sign the resolution declaring Laking as persona non grata.
The court ruled that the suspension be done in three batches so that work at the municipal council will still continue as the officials serve their suspension.
“To effect their suspension all at the same time would undoubtedly paralyze the Sangguniang Bayan of La Trinidad for the entire duration. For a period of 90 days, the municipal government of La Trinidad would have no legislative body to act and approve whatever ordinance or resolutions in the day-to-day functioning of the municipality” the order reads. Meanwhile, Mayor Gregorio Abalos Jr. said there are few things that must be clarified as the decision is silent regarding the vacancies that will be created once the suspension is implemented.
“The Local Government Code has a provision for a process in filling up vacancies once an LGU is placed in this kind of situation. We want to be clarified as no one has anticipated this. I think this is the first time (that a whole council) is suspended,” the mayor said.
“We are sad about the suspension. As the chief executive, we don’t want things like this to happen because it may hamper the continuous provision of services,” Abalos said, adding that while the recent ruling may cause a setback to the town’s effort to serve, they have to abide by it.
The mayor acknowledged the court when it divided the suspension in such a way that a quorum in the council is maintained.
The provincial director of the Department of the Interior and Local Government in Benguet has been tasked to implement the suspension and is requested to submit to the court a periodic report regarding its implementation.
To recall, the town council caused the publication of the resolution declaring Laking as persona non grata using public funds and even if not signed or approved by the La Trinidad mayor.
Laking filed a criminal complaint against the councilors, which was favored by Benguet Prosecutor William Bacoling, who recommended the filing of violation of section 3(a) of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft Practices Acts.
All the accused town officials entered a not guilty plea last year prompting Laking through lawyer Noe Villanueva of the Sanidad Law Office to petition the court to suspend the officials to give way for an impartial adjudication of the case.