The City of Ghosts

Ted Aldwin Ong

If at one end, there is a City of Angels, for sure, there must be a City of Ghosts at the other end.

The City of Angels was set in Los Angeles, California, and depicted in the film which starred Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. It is somehow fictitious being a set in a movie. The City of Ghosts, on the other hand, is no fiction; it is real, and its setting is no less in the home of the world’s No. 5 chief executive – Iloilo City.

The “City of Ghosts” is a highly-urbanized city struggling to reclaim the moniker as the “Queen City of the South”. However, it is farfetched to reclaim the latter and it is better to settle with the former. It is just the reality yet there is no harm in attempting to reclaim a tag from Spanish lore. It is part of its reason for being or else “La Muy Leal Noble” goes to the dumpsite.

This is not to say that being a “City of Ghosts” means we have lots of ghost stories because of the city’s old mansions, old cemeteries, heritage buildings, churches, or hospitals. It is not also because the city has a vibrant funeral services sector, but it is for the reason related to local government’s exercise of governance and delivery of services to its constituents.

It is in this city where you will be treated by stories about ghost employees, ghost reports, ghost public market collection, ghost income, ghost allocation from real property tax collected, ghost expense, ghost contracts, ghost executive assistants, ghost plan, and the list can go on. It is always controversial because no less than a city councilor had underscored in an interview that these “ghosts”, especially ghost employees, is a normal exercise of executive discretion, a concrete form of giving back favors to those individuals that helped an executive preserve its hold in office.

The recent addition to the list of ghosts is the ghost traffic lights. For over three weeks now, media outlets in the city who has no other news to share to the public. They were fixated on the issue of traffic lights installed at the Casa Plaza-Iloilo Provincial Capitol area. The traffic light equipment installed in the area had gathered a lot of criticism as a result of the intense media coverage; which, interestingly, linked the issue as a subject of transparency, and by using it as a vehicle to force the political players within the Mabilog administration to verbalize in the public arena the internal political conflict that has been brewing inside the group.

The circumstances surrounding the controversy followed the trend of why the traffic light ended up in its current place and who installed it there. It is a trivial start up for a controversy, but every issue has a potential of becoming a political issue especially that no one had ever claimed responsibility of knowledge. Nobody in the local government was able to adequately address the questions of how and why the equipment ended up there. Moreover, with the long extended brewing internal conflict between the legislative and the executive departments in the Mabilog administration, trivia as it may seem, can be fatal when laid down in the public arena.

There was no answer from the office of the chief executive. No answer from the office of the Transportation Management and Traffic Regulatory Office (TMTRO). No answer from the office of the Committee on Transportation of the City Council. No answer from the Office of the Executive Assistant for Transportation Concerns of the City Mayor. No answer from the City Engineering Office.

The long and short of it – it is a millions of pesos worth of ghost traffic lights that fell from the heavens.

Without any senseful answers to the questions, it will be natural for someone to dig up deeper into what legal processes and regulatory compliance it went through by demanding transparency. This is where the interesting part comes into the configuration. By accepting the fact that transparency is better said than done on the part of the chief executive; the issue becomes a legitimate public concern. But the issue of transparency is not singlehandedly a matter of concern in the executive branch; it is also very much an issue in the legislative branch.

The transparency issue is very much rooted in all the branches of government under the Mabilog administration. The city councilors are well aware of that, and, in fact, it has benefited from the practice of the chief executive. They are role players that provide substance to the claim that the city is now amassing the benefits of investments as such it is booming. This is not because of private intervention alone, but because of the political will and political unity of the leaders in government from Sen. Franklin Drilon, Cong. Jerry Trenas, the mayor, and down to the city councilors.

Yet demanding transparency is the name of the game today no matter how generic it is. Generic because it has never been automatic even for the city officials to be transparent in all their dealings. This is no less exemplified by some of the city councilors who wanted to portray themselves as the “opposition” in the Mabilog administration by attempting to untangle themselves from the label that they are stamping pads of the mayor. In the majority of instances and by the numerous contracts entered by the city government they are stamping pads. Who says now that the traffic lights procurement did not make them stamping pads? They are. All we have to do is back track in the many transactions entered into by the city government and one will know that transparency is wanting.

And because the benefits of being stamping pads by the mayor had blinded the city officials it was natural for them not to scrutinize transactions at every turn. How will they exercise checks and balance when they are embedded in the system which institutionalized non-transparency. A good reminder of its practice was issued recently by former councilor and now executive assistant to the mayor Perla Zulueta.

The message of the once claimed as feisty fiscalizer in the city council revealed that they got it all wrong because by stamping their approval in the supplemental budget which included the controversial equipment, it was tantamount of issuance of authority to the mayor. I will leave it to the legal experts in the city council to interpret the law versus its internal practice.

Yet just the same, Perla Zulueta’s message can be interpreted like this: have you forgotten all about your practice at the city council? Furthermore, it can be summarized into this: we do not issue resolutions of authority to the mayor, what we do is a good short cut. We insert the item in the budget. You deliberate the budget and approve it. By doing so you issued an authority. It appears that it is moot and academic because budgets are legislated, and once approved, it serves as an authority to spend.

If we consider this practice as both logical and legal (never mind if it is moral or immoral), then there is no debate that we have a city council which continue to serve as a stamping pad of the mayor. Why salivate over transparency and demand liability when all of you are, after all, liable? You are all part of the irregular transaction. Why quarrel over it?

In almost all aspects on the issue of transparency that they are now laying down within the public arena, the city councilors are very much part of it. Some watchers may say that a line has been drawn between some of the city councilors and the mayor. What line are they talking about? It might be an imaginary line. Since 2010, they have decided to step inside the circle and join the mayor. They are very much inside the circle until today and they are swallowed by the system from the start.

The traffic lights issue has their thumb mark of approval all over it. All of you are very much part of this ghost traffic light transaction and there is no sense in wasting your energy to make one appear that he is more transparent than the other. The city council wherein all of you belong is nothing more than a “ghost legislative branch”. There goes another addition. ###


  1. waaygani comfort room ang Parola subong.. kay indi na ya si Mayor Jed mag pasilabot sa Parola. Sa Guimbal na lang kun ma dungka ang taga Guimaras.

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