TURNING POINT: The Imperative of Transparency in Government Projects

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/23 March) — More than two months have passed since the massacre of twenty-eight (28) 30 years old Narra, the country’s national tree, and 40 other trees at the MSU Naawan campus. The premium trees were eliminated to give way to the construction of a certain building. Yet to date, MSU Naawan management has not displayed a signboard in the project site, as mandated by the Commission on Audit (COA) Circular 2013-004, Series of 2013, to inform the public on the life-changing infrastructure to rise in the killing field.

The absence of transparency keeps many wondering, speculating and asking on what the whole enterprise is all about.
Is it a gym, a training center, or a classroom building? How big is it? Did it really need to fell all those trees? How much does it cost? Who is the contractor? How long will it take to construct it?

And how explains the inactivity and silence in the project site for more than a month now after the rush to fell the trees, to flatten and level the ground, and to cordon and fence off the project site from the public? Was the construction stopped by the DENR and by the LGU for lack of tree-cutting and building permit, respectively? Is there a misunderstanding or rift between the contractor and management? Or is there a problem in the flow of funds? What is really going on?

The air thickens with insinuating opinions about the project. This situation could have been avoided or minimized if MSU Naawan had at least complied with the COA Circular of 2013 in handling the project.

COA Circular No. 2013 -004 directs all government agencies to disclose to the public information about their programs, projects and activities (PPAs) that involve the use and expense of government funds. It enjoins the public to support the campaign for good governance by reporting to the Commission any violation of the Circular and observed anomaly and irregularity in the use of government funds and properties. The Circular even provides an email address and a contact number to receive citizens’ reports on the matter.

Among others, the Circular requires that a signboard on government infrastructure projects, regardless of source of fund, should be displayed in project site as soon as the award has been made, or at least 10 days before project implementation.

The signboard shall, in the minimum, contain the following information: project name; implementing unit; brief description of the project; contractor or supplier, if any; mode of procurement; funding source; cost of approved project; project duration including start and completion dates; and location. The COA Supervising Auditor may require management to include other information as may be necessary relevant to the nature of the project.

The signboard containing above information should be made of tarpaulin material suitably framed for outdoor display. The design and format of the tarpaulin shall have the following specifications: 8 feet by 8 feet white tarpaulin; resolution, 70 dpi; font, Helvetica; main information font size, 3 inches; sub-information, I inch; and font color, black.

The failure to comply with any of the provisions of the Circular shall be subject to administrative disciplinary action provided under Section 127 of P.D. 1445, without prejudice to the filing of criminal action against the violators, as may be warranted by existing laws.

The mandatory display of the signboard in project site at least 10 days before the start of implementation is evidently designed to allow public appreciation of the project. The 10-day period gives concerned stakeholders opportunity to scrutinize, react or suggest measures, say, to cushion or reduce any adverse potential impact of the project on the community and the environment.

So what holds MSU Naawan management from complying with the COA Circular and from disclosing to the public information on the touted grand project?

From the Secretary of the Board of Regents of the Mindanao State University, I officially learned that the major construction at MSU Naawan is not a gym or called a gym but a Training and Student Activity Center (TSAC). The deed of agreement on the construction of the TSAC worth P41, 896, 105.60 between the University and Contractor Jacinto Gerona was only approved by the MSU Board of Regents just last week, or during its meeting on 12 March 2014 at CHED Headquarters, UP Diliman, Quezon City.

Such the case, it was impossible for MSU Naawan management to install and display the COA-mandated project signboard two months ago, or before the order to fell the trees and to clear the project site, because technically, officially and legally the TSAC project was still non-existent – there was no valid contract to start anything with. The Chancellor of a campus may only give the go signal to commence a publicly-bid infra project when the contract for the purpose has already been scrutinized and approved by the Board of Regents, the highest policy and governing body of the University.

Needless to say, the management of MSU Naawan committed two irresponsible, illegal acts which forbade it from coming up with the COA information signboard: starting the project without valid construction contract and felling the trees without the necessary cutting permit.

Meanwhile, DENR 10 has nothing to do with the cessation of activities in the project site. What the DENR Investigation Team stopped last week was the cutting of logs from the felled trees and the illegal operation of the mini-sawmill on campus. Officials of the municipal local government of Naawan revealed, on the other hand, that MSU Naawan has not been issued a building permit to any of the buildings currently constructed. But they had nothing to do with the lull of activities in the project site.

The likely reason for the suspension of construction activities for over a month now is the inability of MSU Naawan management to turn over to the Project Contractor the required mobilization fund (Obviously, no level-headed contractor would continue to pour in more resources to an enterprise without assurance of immediate replacement from project fund). This transfer of fund or payment for mobilization may only be done, however, upon the perfection of the construction contract. The contract for the TSAC was only perfected last week when the Board of Regents approved it as mentioned above. No payment could be done before that. Because without the approved contract, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) will not process or release any allocation for whatever purpose anent the project. Hence, the real time processing for the mobilization fund has only very recently begun.

Now, what is behind this avoidance of calling a gym a gym when in truth its size and design is that of a gym? Why call it by another name, now officially as Training and Student Activity Center, or cutely as TSAC?

The TSAC budget of P41.89M is part of the MSU Naawan share from the MSU System allocation coming from the Commission on Higher Education – Disbursement Acceleration Program Fund (CHED-DAPF).

The Commission on Higher Education was allocated P4.284 Billion from the 2012 Disbursement Acceleration Program Fund of the Office of the President to strengthen the institutional capacity of state universities and colleges (SUCs) in the performance of their triad functions in instruction, research and extension services. CHED favored the MSU System with a P1.039 Billion share from the DAPF, a huge amount next only to the P1.383 Billion lion share pocketed by the UP System. The remaining balance of the CHED-DAPF was distributed to more than 100 SUCs throughout the country.

I was still in the Board of Regents of the University when the CHED-DAP allocation to MSU was made known. It was made clear to everyone that the one-billion-peso windfall should be used in building or upgrading classrooms and laboratory facilities and in acquiring laboratory equipment to improve the teaching-learning environment and to boost the capacity of the different campuses of the MSU system to do research and extension services.

From the P1.039 Billion CHED-DAP fund, MSU Naawan was allotted P45M for infrastructure development and equipment. This is the budget set aside by MSU Naawan management for the construction of the gym or TSAC plus the budget for the equipment of said building.

Needless to say, the construction of a gym is outside the intent and purpose of the CHED-DAP Fund. The money should have been addressed to invigorate the flagship program of MSU Naawan in the fields of fisheries and aquaculture, marine and environmental sciences. The fund should have been used specifically in upgrading the 42-year-old research laboratory of the campus, to replace or augment its antiquated equipment, and rehabilitate its dilapidated research, training and production fishponds.

A gym is a misplaced and ugly priority no matter how grandiose it may look. Thus it has to be camouflaged at least by a name – Training and Student Activity Center – to escape attention and scrutiny. And this could be another reason why until now the signboard for the TSAC is nowhere to find in the project site.

Meanwhile, through the “initiative” of the MSU President two buildings have begun construction middle of last year at Naawan campus, namely: the Natural Environment Science building (P17, 301,559.79) and Information Technology building (P4, 569, 406.81). The budgets for these projects also came from the CHED-DAPF allocation for the MSU system. While the procurements for said projects were taken care of by MSU Marawi, the supervision in its implementation rests with MSU Naawan. But like the TSAC, trees were also felled and cleared for the said construction without MSU Naawan securing the cutting permit.

Of the three major infra projects at MSU Naawan, only the P4.5M IT building had a tarpaulin streamer which spells out the nature and name of the project, contractor, contract amount, source of fund, and date of start and contract duration, with a line catcher “Thru the initiative of Dr. Macapado A. Muslim, MSU System President.” (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental. He was a British Council fellow and trained in 1994 at Sheffield University, United Kingdom, on Participatory Planning and Environmentally Responsible Development. Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association)