The case stemmed from the mayor's alleged failure to stop the operation and to convert an open dumpsite into a controlled dumpsite on or before February 2004. File photo

Cabanatuan mayor acquitted of waste management raps
Elizabeth Marcelo (philstar.com) - January 20, 2018 - 6:22pm

MANILA, Philippines — The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan has acquitted Cabanatuan City mayor Julius Cesar “Jay” Vergara of a criminal case over his supposed failure to stop the operation of an open dumpsite being utilized by the city since the 1960s.

In a 22-page decision promulgated on January 12, the court's First Division said prosecutors from the Office of the Ombudsman failed to present sufficient evidence to prove that Vergara “willfully or grossly neglected or abused his authority or improperly perform his duty” to convert the open dumpsite into a controlled dumpsite.

Filed by the ombudsman in 2012, the case against Vergara involves violation of Section 37 of Republic Act 9003 otherwise known as the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.

The case stemmed from Vergara's alleged failure to stop the operation and to convert an open dumpsite located in the villages of Valle Cruz and San Isidro in Cabanatuan City into a controlled dumpsite on or before February 2004.

Section 37 of RA 9003 mandates the local government units to convert open dumpsites into controlled ones within three years from the effectivity of the Act in 2001. Section 37 of RA 9003 further states that controlled dumps shall then be prohibited starting in February 2006 or five years after the effectivity of the act.

In its ruling, the Seventh Division pointed out that while the city government admittedly failed to effect the conversion of the open dumpsite into a controlled one on or before February 2004, the prevailing circumstances at that time caused the delay and not any culpable refusal or unwillingness on the part of the accused.

The court noted that several actions were in fact initiated by Vergara and the city government for the open dumpsite's conversion and eventual closure, such as the passage of Cabanatuan City Solid Waste Management Plan, the City Government Commitment Plan on Rehabilitation of Valle Cruz Dumpsite and other city ordinances on the implementation of RA 9003.

The First Division noted that the city government even held public consultations regarding the establishment of a proposed Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), and even went as far as purchasing three lots in the adjoining village of Macatbong with total land area of 77,573 square meters to be the site of the MRF.

The court said records also show that city government entered into an agreement with private contractor Lacto-Asia in April 2005 for the operation of the MFR, until its construction was met with oppositions by village residents who filed an administrative complaint against the city government.

“In the case of the subject dumpsite, it is admitted that the same has been utilized by Cabanatuan City since the 1960s with the garbage coming from almost 89 barangays of the city. Over the years, the dumpsite has become a four-storey high mountain of garbage with spontaneous burning,” the decision read.

“Thus, to effect the conversion of the same into a controlled dump within three years is a serious feat, and to the mind of the Court, the public official involved should not be held criminally liable for failure to do so without a showing of willful or gross neglect of duty, abuse of authority, or improper performance of his duty,” it added.

The Seventh Division noted that as admitted by both the prosecution and the defense witnesses, the city government was able to effect the conversion of the open dumpsite in March 2005 and its total closure in 2008.

“Clearly, the city government with the accused as its chief executive was able to effect the conversion of the dumpsite, and its total closure thereafter, albeit belatedly,” the court said.

“While the accused may be faulted for his initial failure to communicate regularly with the DENR or the NSWMC (National Solid Waste Management Commission) as to the status of the city's compliance with RA 9003, the Court finds that the same does not amount to a willful or gross neglect of duty, or an abuse of authority, or an improper performance thereof,” it added.

The decision was penned by division chairman Associate Justice Efren De La Cruz with the concurrence of Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Edgardo Caldona.

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