The Comelec: A reality check

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Pampanga:

Comelec, Mabalacat City

Photos and Interview by Aizeline M. David

Mabalacat is a spanking new city, having been converted from a municipality into a component city of Pampanga province only during the last quarter of 2012. As a component city, Mabalacat’s 91,978 registered voters will also have to elect Pampanga’s provincial officials in the coming midterm elections in May.

These voters actually form just about half of the city’s population. But that still means that if they were to divide the number of Mabalacat voters among themselves, the staff of the Comelec Office of Mabalacat will each have to be responsible for about 7,075 voters. And that’s already counting the supplementary staff.

The city’s Comelec office has a team of 13. Only one is regular: City Election Officer Francisco David.


Comelec Office in Mabalacat City, Pampanga (photo by Aizeline M. David for PCIJ)

His support staff of 12 is made up of two contractuals and 10 supplemental personnel from the city government. But David says the office needs eight more personnel to accommodate the area’s increasing number of voters.

It’s not clear where he will put those additional personnel if he ever gets them. The Mabalacat Comelec office’s two office divisions, personnel and documents, are already crammed with four desktop computers, one airconditioning unit, two electric fans, and three filing cabinets in big, medium, and small sizes. There are tables with piles of documents that could not fit into the filing cabinets. And then there are the personnel. Somehow people, paper, and equipment managed to fit into a space with a floor area of 13 13 square meters. Certain parts of its ceiling show signs of leakage from the rooftop.

David says their perennial problem before the elections is the "delay in the delivery of election documents and supplies."

During the last elections, he says, some voters’ names were allegedly omitted in the list of voters. There were also long queues and an insufficient number of PCOS machines. They also experienced delays in the transmission of data due to air traffic problems and some of the machines were defective.

David, however, is also always busy trying to make ends meet at the office. He says it’s hard with the quarterly budget the Mabalacat Comelec office receives from the Commission’s central office: a measly P3,000 for its cash advances, or just P1,000 a month. During an election year, his office also receives an additional P30,000 as mobilization fund, but that is supposed to last them for the entire six months of the election period.

David says that when they fall short on office supplies, they ask from the other departments of City Hall. In this aspect, at least, his office may be considered more fortunate than most other Comelec offices surveyed by PCIJ fellows; not only does the Mabalacat City government provide the local Comelec with a monthly P4,000 budget, it also has an “election reserve fund,” which the Comelec field office can tap upon presentation of a “program of work.” For the upcoming May 13, 2013 polls, David says he will be requesting P200,000 from the Mabalacat City government.

The mobilization fund from the Comelec head office and the election reserve fund from the local government unit though, are only available to the local Comelec during an election year. Otherwise, the combined funds from the Comelec head office and the local government do not suffice for the local poll body’s daily operating expenses. This is why David says his office has taken to a "sideline" of laminating identification cards. But he clarifies, "It is not compulsory for people to avail (of the) said service. Only when they want it, we don’t force it on them.”

David thinks the Comelec head office would do better to increase their quarterly budget to P5,000 from the current P3,000. He also says that it would be best if such a budget would be made into a permanent one that is integrated into the general budget, rather than the current “cash-advance” system that is subject to liquidation.

As it is, David is already feeling that their office is not as independent as it should be. From its office space to its budget, and even its supplemental personnel, the city Comelec office has become quite dependent on City Hall. David says they “don’t have a choice,” noting that the election reserve fund of the city government even pays for the salaries of the JO (job order staff) or supplementary personnel.

Much like most of its counterparts in other provinces, the Mabalacat Comelec is located within the City Hall compound -- adjacent to the City Mayor’s Office.

Still, David maintains that they do not let the supplements and fund assistance from City Hall affect their work. He assures voters of Mabalacat City that the coming midterm elections will be honest, "just like what happened in the plebiscite last July 2012."

“We don’t let ourselves be dictated upon,” he says. “We proclaim whomever the people vote for. It’s not like we would let the election process be corrupted, right?”

Comelec, Angeles City

Photos and Interview by Tonette T. Orejas

Unlike the other offices of the Comelec outside Manila, its office in Angeles City in the province of Pampanga is relatively "more spacious," says City Election Officer Numer Lobo, quite proudly.

"I believe our office is conducive for work," he says.

At present, the Angeles City Comelec office is divided into three areas: Staff and Election Assistants, Records and Information, and the office of the Election Officer. It has only one common comfort room. But unlike many other Comelec offices, this one has three airconditioning units, a television set, a refrigerator, a water dispenser, and a microwave oven, aside from the usual desktop computers (of which it has three) and printers (of which it has two). A number of the equipment, however, are personal property owned by the Comelec staff and are merely on loan to the office. Lobo himself says he owns one of the printers.

The office also has several "big" filing cabinets, although these apparently cannot take any more documents as evidenced by the piles of paper on top of the tables, as well as still more stacks sitting on the side of the stock area together with some ballot boxes.


Comelec Office in Angeles City, Pampanga (photo by Tonette T. Orejas for PCIJ)

Lobo, however, may be keen on counting his blessings since the office he heads gets a little more from Manila than its counterpart in neighboring Mabalacat City: P6,000 every quarter for cash advances. Lobo says though, that this fund can only be spent for office supplies and not for gas, even as he concedes that their liquidation process is "not that efficient."

Unlike in Mabalacat City, however, the Comelec office in Angeles City does not receive any budget from the city government. Its electric and water bills, though, are paid by the city government.

During the election period, Lobo says the central office provides them with an additional budget amounting to P30,000.

"(We) just operate according to (our) means," he says, adding that whenever the budget falls short, they simply get the missing amount from their own pockets or ask other neighboring Comelec (field) offices for help.

The shortfall could be significant since the tasks in every Comelec office are never-ending. In every pre-election period, for instance, Lobo says that "last-minute registrants, delivery of registration supplies, and minimal number of VRM machines” have been problematic for them. He also says they have difficulties with the removal of campaign posters and keeping up with the statements of campaign expenditures and contributions since they are understaffed.

The Angeles City Comelec Office is located within Angeles City Hall, which seems fine with Lobo since, he says, “under the law, the host LGU (local government unit) is mandated to provide for an office to Comelec.”

“Aside from that, (we) are on (our) own," he says. "Since I assumed office as Comelec officer in Angeles City, I have not asked for even a single ballpen from the LGU."

He believes it is important for the city Comelec office and its personnel to be independent from the host LGU because "this is the basic step for building trust in the office that they represent." He says they do not want the registered voters of Angeles to think that any kind of link to a certain official can influence the delivery of service by Comelec.

To this end, Lobo says that Comelec offices across the country would achieve "full independence" if all the personnel of Comelec -- especially in its field offices -- will come from the "national office and the building (office) will also come from the main office."

In the meantime, Lobo thinks it would be wise to have "a uniform office for all Comelec field offices in the country."

"The office must have a separate area for reception, for the staff, for the election officer, and for document storage," he says. A vehicle provided by the Commission for the field offices certainly wouldn’t hurt as well, he says, since it would make them more efficient in their daily operations. For his office, he says "additional and more advanced office equipment would be very welcome” for its daily operations.

PANGASINAN:

Comelec, San Carlos City

Interview and Photos by Jay D. Mendoza

San Carlos City is a third-class city in the province of Pangasinan. In the 2010 elections, the province recorded a voter turnout of 79.55 percent, the highest among the 10 vote-rich provinces (among which Pangasinan is third).

Currently, San Carlos City has 96,753 registered voters. These voters will be accommodated by seven Comelec staff: one election officer, two election assistants, three casuals from Comelec, and one supplemental staff from the local government unit.

Aside from voters, the city’s Comelec officers will also oversee the electoral race of 31 local candidates: four running for mayor, two for vice-mayor, and 25 for the city council.

With less than 10 employees to monitor more than 80 barangays, it is expected that work is more difficult and demanding.

At least City Election Officer Jenifer C. Balarbar says that while their office space -- located on the second floor of City Hall -- is small and now quite crowded, it still works for them. “The interior’s still okay,” says Balarbar. “It can still accommodate all the records, plus all the staff. We’re a bit cramped right now with the OJT (on-the-job-training) people, but generally the office is okay.”


Comelec Office in San Carlos City, Pangasinan (photo by Jay Mendoza for PCIJ)

But the office itself seems to be the only thing that Balarbar has no difficulties seeing in a positive light.

Aside from ensuring the accurate list of registered voters, regulating candidates during the campaign period is one of the hardest tasks they have since they have limited power, she says. She cites as an example the illegally placed posters of many candidates that she says were already posted all over the city before the campaign period had even officially begun. The problem, says Balarbar, is that Comelec is powerless to take down such campaign posters before the start of the campaign period.

As for the budget allocation, Balarbar notes that the Comelec central office provides them with quarterly allowance of P5,000 as petty cash for supplies, while utility bills like phone bills are reimbursed from Manila. In addition, they request for a certain amount from the LGU, and wait for the approval of the council and the mayor. “It’s the discretion of the local government officials whether they would grant our budget request or not,” she says.

But while Balarbar also says that the LGU already provides the San Carlos Comelec Office its primary needs, she says they could still do with a photocopier machine, printers, and filing cabinets. She explains in part, “We need a photocopier because there’s always someone getting a copy of VRRs (Voters Registration Record) every day. As much as possible, I would like to treat all records here confidential. It would be better if we had our own photocopying machine so the records wouldn’t have to be brought out of the office.”  

She doesn’t really say if she expects that to come from the LGU or the Comelec head office. That goes as well for the additional budget she says is needed “for supplies and transportation of election officers because we do make rounds. So we would appreciate a bigger mobilization fund.”

The election officer does say, though, that while they rely on the LGU for many things, this will not compromise their independence and neutrality.

“I still maintain the Comelec’s independence, as well as my integrity and the integrity of my office,” she says. “That’s why when I request for the budget, I may declare to the mayor … as well as to the members of the Sanggunian, ‘We’re doing this with no strings attached. I’m just asking for a budget because I need it’.”  

But Balarbar admits that in some areas, there are local government officials who tend to expect something in return for any budget that they release to the local Comelec. She also says that there are mayors who tend to cast an election officer in an unfavorable light if they do not get their way.

“We know of certain experiences when the election officer gets belittled,” she says, although she clarifies that in San Carlos City, she has had no such experience thus far.

Comelec, Dagupan City

Interview and Photos by Glamorfe L. Calicdan

When it comes to office space, Dagupan City Election Officer Ericson B. Organiza seems quite satisfied that the Comelec office here is well-ventilated and equipped with proper tables and chairs to accommodate registrants. But he notes that since it’s on the second floor of City Hall (near the offices of the Civil Registrar and Public Order and Safety), it’s not accessible to senior citizens and persons with disabilities.


Comelec Office in Dagupan City, Pangasinan (photo by Glamorfe L. Calicdan for PCIJ)

That turns out to be just the start of Organiza’s litany of woes. For this election, he says he has only six election assistants from the Comelec, although the local government provided an extra seven staff. All in all, the office has 14 staff to accommodate more than 90,000 registered voters and to monitor 25 local candidates -- two candidates each for mayor and vice-mayor positions, and 21 for the city council.

Organiza also says that the central office provides them P6,000 per quarter as supplies allowance, or P2,000 per month. But he says this budget is not enough to cover their monthly expenses, especially during busy working days like the registration period, where they need to provide photocopy sets of registration forms, which can really be costly. Occasionally, though, the local government unit gives them office supplies, upon request --  or as Organiza puts it, “instant request.”

More money may be coming their way, though, since he says that during previous elections, the Comelec central office allotted P20,000 to P30,000 as mobilization fund to their office.

Like other Comelec officers elsewhere, he hastens to clarify that although getting assistance from the LGU puts their office in a compromising situation, he makes it a point that they maintain their independence. There are times, though, when local officials would ask for “favors” from Comelec field personnel, he says, although he did not elaborate what those favors were. He also says that the presence of LGU-hired personnel among his staff could be viewed as being the “eyes” of the local government officials inside Comelec. Yet Organiza insists that the Comelec field staff cannot be dictated upon by local government officials.  

Organiza also recalls that previous elections had brought in problems like delays in the delivery of election paraphernalia and release of honoraria for the Board of Election Inspectors and the school teachers who got lassoed in to help with the elections.

He says some teachers were infuriated especially with the delayed release of their honorarium. According to Organiza, the teachers thought the election officers had stolen their allowances and spent them for personal pleasures.

Batangas City and Legazpi City

Batangas City

Photos and Interview by Sarita Kare-Telado

At first glance, the staff complement of the Comelec office in Batangas City -- eight permanent staff, two contractual/casual employees, and three supplemental personnel from the city government -- would seem to be on a par with its counterparts in Central and Northern Luzon.

But with 205,857 registered voters -- the largest number of registered voters in all six cities in Luzon that the PCIJ fellows surveyed -- the staff of Batangas City Comelec is expected to handle the needs of at least 48,000 more voters than each of the five other cities surveyed.

This task is made even more difficult by the fact that all 13 staff members have to do their job inside the confines of an office that is less than 40 square meters in size. As it is, the personnel’s desks are already groaning heavily under piles of documents. But the staff are bracing themselves for their version of post-election horror: even more documents that the 28 candidates vying for various elective posts in the city are required to submit.


Comelec Office in Batangas City (photo by Sarita Kare-Telado for PCIJ)

In fact, the head of this office, City Election Officer Grollen Mar M. Liwag, makes do with a tiny cubicle separated from the rest of the office only by a low divider. From this tiny space, Liwag administers all of the city’s election-related affairs.

The narrow hallway outside the office serves as an extension of the equally narrow receiving area inside, where the city’s voters wait to be served.

Indeed, the need for a bigger office space is the most urgent problem identified by Liwag. For Liwag, the cramped office that the Comelec city office currently occupies is “too small” to contain all the records that the office possesses. It also hinders the office, he says, from “effectively serving the people.”

The Comelec office in Batangas City is located on the second floor of a building that houses other government offices within the City Hall compound.

Liwag says the Comelec head office in Manila provides Comelec Batangas City a quarterly petty cash of P6,000 for the registration period. That amount translates to only P2,000 per month.

The Batangas City government provides the local Comelec “some” office supplies, says Liwag. But this support from the city government appears to be insufficient because Liwag also says that his office needs “ample and sufficient office supplies for the whole year” from the Comelec central office. Liwag is likewise emphatic about the need for the central office to “adjust the salary grade of all the rank and file employees” because they “are really underpaid when compared to our counterparts in other government agencies.”

Comelec, Legazpi City

Interview and Photos by Aireen Perol-Jaymalin

As in some other cities in Luzon, the Comelec city office in Legazpi City is located within the city hall compound. This means that each of its 10 personnel, on average, would have to share some five square meters of office space with office furniture and stacks upon stacks of documents and election paraphernalia.

Thus, during times when the 55-square-meter office has to receive clients (for instance, when issuing voter’s IDs), the place becomes very cramped indeed.


Comelec Office in Legazpi City, Albay (photo by Aireen Perol-Jaymalin for PCIJ)

The office’s six permanent staff, one casual/contractual employee, and three supplemental personnel from the local government unit have to see to the needs of Legazpi City’s 111,254 registered voters and monitor the activities of 21 candidates running for various posts in the city.

The office receives a P6,000 quarterly budget, or P2,000 monthly for office supplies, from the Comelec head office, according to City Election Officer Jasmin Banzuela-Belarmino. This budget does not seem to cover costs to improve the facilities of the office, based on the condition of the office cabinets and desks, which are already very old, some of them broken. In fact, some of the tables being used by Banzuela-Belarmino were salvaged from pieces of furniture thrown out by other government offices as “unserviceable property.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if Banzuela-Belarmino had a litany of complaints. But she isn’t talking.

When asked what the most common problems encountered by her office are and the resources she needs from the Comelec head office, the city election officer refused to answer, saying that she is “not authorized” to do so.

NEGROS OCCIDENTAL:

Provincial Comelec

Interview and Photos by Julius D. Mariveles

Negros Occidental Provincial Election Supervisor Wil Arceño thinks his office is undermanned. For Arceño, Comelec Negros Occidental could better see to the needs of the province’s 1,574,784 voters (including that of Bacolod City) and monitor its 825 candidates running in the May 13, 2013 polls -- including 43 candidates running for various elective posts at the province level -- if his office would be given at least three more personnel. The additional staff members could be hired as casuals, he says.

The Provincial Comelec here has 11 staff members: the provincial election supervisor, three election assistants, six casual employees, and one supplemental staff from the provincial government. They share a 50-square-meter office inside the Bacolod Arts, Youth and Sports Center, which is right across the Provincial Capitol. The Center also houses other government offices of the province.

Besides providing the office space, the provincial government of Negros Occidental shoulders the Comelec provincial office’s electricity and water bills. The Comelec head office shoulders the phone and Internet bills, says Arceño.

Arceño says that his office also receives a P10,000 quarterly petty cash budget from Comelec national. This, he says, is spent mostly for reproduction and courier expenses. But there are times when the field office had to dip into its petty cash fund to buy additional office supplies because those purchased by the national office -- such as bond papers and pens -- are hardly enough for the provincial Comelec’s daily operations.


Provincial Comelec Office, Negros Occidental (photo by Ashley Liza for PCIJ)

During an election year, the Comelec head office is also supposed to provide a ‘mobilization fund’ for its field offices. The amount, Arceño explains, is meant to support conferences and meetings with members of the Philippine Army and the Philippine National Police for the entire election period. But according to Arceño, this fund is often released late, sometimes with just a few days to go before the polls.

It might have come as a relief for Arceño that for the May 13, 2013 polls, he had already received his P75,000 mobilization fund. Then again, as of March 6 when the interview was conducted  -- or three weeks before the campaign period for local bets had even officially begun -- that mobilization fund was already gone because of a series of meetings with Comelec’s deputized agencies, according to Arceño.

The situation might have been compounded by the field office’s lack of vehicles. As far as he can remember, Arceño says, Comelec has not bought a vehicle for any of its provincial offices. (with additional reporting by Barbara Mijares and Ashley Liza)

Bacolod City Comelec

Interview and Photos by Julius D. Mariveles

At the 24-square-meter Comelec City Office in Bacolod City, there are two things that are present on nearly all the desks: a mini electric fan and stacks of documents.

“Most of the air-conditioning units given to us are second-hand and would conk out after some time,” lawyer Mavil Majarucon, city election registrar, says inside her office, although it feels more like a shoebox.

Air is prized a lot here. The main room of the Comelec City Office, which is a little more than twice the size of Majarucon’s space, is crammed full of books of voters and other election paraphernalia -- and employees sweating in the summer heat.

The Office has 13 regular election assistants, eight casual employees, and three supplemental staff from the Bacolod City government. With a total of 25 staff members, the Bacolod City Comelec Office has by far the biggest number of personnel in all city Comelec offices visited by the PCIJ fellows. But then they have to see to the needs of 259,302 voters and more than 53 candidates running for the congressional, mayoral, vice mayoral, and city council seats in the May 13, 2013 polls.

Outside, voters line up at the tile-lined counters, waiting for the issuance of their voter’s IDs or certifications as they go about their jobs inside.


An elderly voter waits for the release of her voter’s certification at one of the windows of the Comelec-Bacolod office. (photo by Julius D. Mariveles for PCIJ)

 “Some of my employees would file leaves of absences because of rising blood pressure,” says Majarucon. 

The Comelec office in this capital city of Negros Occidental province is housed inside the Bacolod Arts, Youth and Sports Center, a facility built in the 1990s. BAYS Center is located along San Juan Street, just across the public plaza and around 3.5 kilometers from the New Government Center, which hosts most of the offices of the local government.  BAYS Center itself has some of the other local government offices, including that of the Office of the Building Inspector. On its top floor is Police Station 1. Just outside the Center is a basketball court and gymnasium that doubles as a canvassing area during Election Day.

Majarucon says her office has already reached the ideal ratio of one election assistant for every 20,000 voting population. But she says her office still needs more manpower -- a problem that becomes more acute right before an election.

“The misconception is that we are working only when there are polls but that is not true,” Majarucon says. She adds that the period between elections is when Comelec usually does its continual cleansing of the list of voters. This is aside from “attending to other administrative tasks like the issuance of certifications for voters.”

Besides providing the office space, Majarucon says that the city government pays for all the utilities of the Comelec office. “I am like a squatter here, I don’t even know how much is being spent for lights and water,” she says.

If she had her way, Majarucon would rather have the poll body rent its own office space and pay for its own utility bills. “I don’t want to keep asking for favors from the local government because officials would also ask for something in return,” she says. But she quickly clarifies that such “requests” are of the legal kind.

Majarucon says, though, that the most urgent problem is the low salary grades of Comelec employees compared to those in other government offices. “Our salaries are way below that of our national counterparts,” she says, adding that the head office had slashed overtime pay for its personnel.

She recalls the time under then Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos, when Comelec field personnel were receiving overtime pay for up to four hours of work on Saturdays and Sundays, six months before the elections. “Now,” she says, “we are being paid for only two hours on Saturdays.”

Murcia Comelec

Interview and Photos by Julius D. Mariveles

Is it an office or a closet? With a space of only about 15 square meters, the Comelec office in the municipality of Murcia is perhaps the smallest among all Comelec offices in the province of Negros Occidental, says Municipal Election Officer Shiela Sol.

Located inside the municipal hall where the National Police, the Mayor’s Office, and the Sangguniang Bayan are based, the tiny office houses seven Comelec employees: a municipal election officer, two election assistants, and four supplemental personnel from the municipal government.

Because of the limited space, documents are stored inside a small stockroom above the office. Accessible only by climbing the steep wooden stairs, the stockroom looks in danger of collapsing onto the employees working below because of the crush of all the documents stuffed inside it.

But the cramped office space is hardly the only problem hindering the Comelec municipal office in Murcia from catering to the needs of the municipality’s 43,786 voters and 31 candidates vying for different elective posts in the May 13, 2013 elections. Its staff members also have to contend with the office’s lack of basic communication equipment, such as landlines and fax machines, while going about their daily tasks.

In fact, according to Sol, her staff members have to go to the nearby office of the town mayor and use the fax machine there whenever the Comelec Law Department in Manila asks for reports. Sometimes, they have to travel 16 kilometers all the way to Bacolod City to use the fax machine in the office of the provincial election supervisor there. To be able to communicate with each other, the staff members of Murcia Comelec rely on their own mobile phones. 

Sol also says the number of staff members on her team is inadequate to effectively monitor all campaign activities, such as public rallies, of the candidates running in Murcia.

Southern Leyte

Interviews and Photos by Jani C. Arnaiz

Southern Leyte is a third-class province in the Eastern Visayas Region. This means that the province earns on average, “P270 million or more but less than P360 million” each year (based on Department of Finance Department Order No. 23-08 Effective July 29, 2008). Southern Leyte comprises 18 municipalities and one component city. Among the municipalities, only seven were visited for this story.

Three of these municipal Comelec offices can be found inside the municipal hall, while the remaining four occupy buildings owned by the local government near the municipal hall. The Comelec office in Anahawan town, for instance, holds office inside the municipal gym while those in Hinundayan and San Juan towns occupy old local government buildings that used to serve as the municipal halls.


Municipal Comelec Office, Hinundayan town, Southern Leyte (photo by Jani C. Arnaiz for PCIJ)

The electric bills of all the offices visited are also shouldered by the host municipal governments.

Besides providing the office space and paying for the electricity, however, the local government units provide little else to the local Comelec. The poll body’s field personnel are thus dependent on the Comelec head office in Manila to provide them the most basic resources that they need to operate, such as office supplies and equipment. But it appears that head office support for these necessities is rather wanting. According to the Comelec field staff, the delivery of office supplies tends to be delayed. Majority of the Comelec offices visited also suffer from lack of computers.  

It’s no wonder that the shortage of office supplies is the most urgent problem identified by the Comelec field personnel in Southern Leyte. But all of them can also use more pairs of hands to help them carry out their tasks. On average, each municipal Comelec visited rely on only two permanent field staff, regardless of the number of registered voters in the jurisdiction. For instance, San Juan town, which has the highest number of registered voters at 8,465, has only two personnel. The town of Limasawa, meanwhile, has less than half of San Juan’s registered voters (4,065 registered voters for the May 13, 2013 polls) but has the same number of staff members as San Juan.

To address the staffing gap, the LGU assigns additional staff to the Comelec office. But in four of the seven offices visited, the Comelec officers say the LGU does so “only when needed.” They did not elaborate how such a ‘need’ for additional manpower is determined and what process the LGU goes through in assigning its employees to the municipal Comelec.

Like its counterparts in Northern Samar, the Comelec municipal field offices in Southern Leyte are also grappling with problems related to office space. The 14-square-meter Comelec offices in the towns of Pintuyan and San Francisco are crammed with documents and other election materials. Yet, those two offices are already the largest among the seven Comelec offices visited. The rest range from seven square meters to 10.5 square meters in size.

Maasin City Comelec

Interview and Photos by Jani C. Arnaiz

Maasin City is a fourth-class component city of Southern Leyte province. This means that Maasin earns an average annual income of “P160 million or more but less than P240 million,” based on Department of Finance Department Order No. 23-08 Effective July 29, 2008. Being a component city, Maasin’s 51,622 registered voters will also be electing their provincial officials in the upcoming May 13, 2013 polls.

Perhaps because Maasin City is the provincial capital, the Comelec office there holds the distinction of being the only field office that can be described as “orderly” among the commission’s field offices in Southern Leyte visited for this story. It also occupies the largest office space at 72 square meters.

But perhaps this is just as well, because with 11 staff members, the Maasin City Comelec office also has the largest number of personnel in the province. They include six permanent staff, two casual/contractual staff, and three supplemental staff hired by the city government.

Even with a relatively large workforce, Assistant Election Officer Jade Rebadomia thinks they could still use additional staff support from the Comelec central office in Manila. Yet when asked what needs to be addressed most urgently, Rebadomia says it is the lack of office supplies.

The Maasin City Comelec office stands on local government property near the city gym. Besides providing the office space, the city government also foots the electric bill of the local Comelec.

NORTHERN SAMAR:

Municipal Comelec offices

Interviews and Photos by Eladio D. Perfecto

The local government unit is supposed to give the local Comelec office “suitable office space,” according to the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa Blg. 881). Perhaps the Code should have been more specific because in Northern Samar and in far too many other places, LGUs seem to have a questionable definition of “suitable.”

Take the local Comelec in Northern Samar’s capital town of Catarman, where seven staff members hold office in a 24-square-meter space. But then the island municipality of Laoang has it worse; the local Comelec’s five staff members have to squeeze themselves into a cubbyhole a mere nine square meters in size.

Northern Samar has 24 municipalities, but only 21 municipal Comelec offices in the province were visited for this story. All but one of these 21 offices could hardly contain all the documents and old election materials and paraphernalia that these offices still cannot afford to discard. Sixteen are only 12 square meters in size; some are even smaller. The smallest Comelec office in Palapag town is only six square meters, definitely not much larger than a closet. The most spacious Comelec office meanwhile, is located in Pambujan town. At 48 square meters, Pambujan Comelec is deemed "spacious."


Municipal Comelec Office, San Jose town, Northern Samar (photo by Eladio D. Perfecto for PCIJ)

All of the 21 offices are housed in buildings owned by the municipal government. Majority of them are located inside the municipal hall itself, either on the ground floor or on the second floor. Some have come to occupy the old municipal building left by the local government when it moved to a new municipal hall. (Or in the case of the municipalities of Laoang and Lavezares, the Sangguniang Bayan building and the Association of Barangay Captains building, respectively.) 

On average, each municipal office has only two permanent employees: an election officer and an election assistant. In some cases, there is a third staff hired by the LGU and assigned to the Comelec office. Catarman has the biggest number of staff members at seven employees: three permanent staff and four supplemental personnel from the LGU.

But with 45,234 registered voters, Catarman also has by far the highest number of voters among the 21 municipalities surveyed. In fact, it has 10,508 more voters than Laoang, the municipality with the second highest number of voters among those surveyed in the province.

Because of the staffing shortage, some Comelec offices were empty at the time of the visit as the election officer and his assistant were doing the rounds of monitoring in their jurisdiction.

Some of the areas visited are island municipalities, which can be reached only by riding a commuter boat. When such accessibility issues are present, having good communication facilities becomes even more vital for the efficient operations of the local Comelec. But majority of the Comelec offices there lack Internet connection.

Understandably, this is included in the list that the Comelec field staff interviewed hoped the Comelec head office will be able to provide them, along with an increase in salaries and other benefits such as hazard pay and medical allowances. In nearly all of the 21 municipal Comelec offices visited, the municipal governments are already shouldering the electric bills and, in some cases, also providing for some office supplies. PCIJ, April 2013

 

Provincial Comelec

Interview and Photos by Eladio D. Perfecto

Because it is classified as a second-class province in the Eastern Visayas region, Northern Samar’s 24 municipalities are supposedly earning an aggregate average income of “P360 million or more but less than P450 million” annually (per Department of Finance Department Order No.23-08 Effective July 29, 2008).

But Northern Samar’s provincial government does not appear to share much of that income with the provincial Comelec office. Besides providing the office space and footing the electric bill, the provincial government does not seem to provide anything else to the poll body’s office there.  

Located in the old, one-storey Provincial Agriculture building in Northern Samar’s capital town of Catarman, the Comelec provincial office is manned by seven staff members: four of them permanent employees and three casual staff. They administer the province’s 375,268 registered voters and monitor 28 candidates vying for provincial posts in the upcoming May 13, 2013 polls while squeezed inside an 18-square meter office alongside stacks of documents and old election paraphernalia.

But having a small office space seems to be the least of the provincial Comelec personnel’s worries. Northern Samar Comelec staff Margarita Tobes says they also have to grapple with frequent power interruptions and delayed delivery of election paraphernalia. Compounding such problems are delays in the release of their budget and in the delivery of their office supplies from the Comelec head office in Manila.

Tobes says what his office needs most urgently are additional permanent personnel and additional compensation for their staff in the form of salary increases and benefits, including hazard pay and medical allowance. The office could also benefit from Internet connectivity, which it currently lacks. PCIJ, April 2013

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