Citizen Watchdog

Citizen questions Catbalogan City mayor’s epal posters

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By Rhenn S. Taguiam

What seems to be the link between your mayor’s glossy photos with the launch of a seminar for pregnant women? Or will a poster on Nutrition Month and having the mayor’s names in bold and big letters make the celebration more meaningful to the people?

These are just some of the questions of a concerned citizen from Catbalogan City who recently sent us photos of tarp posters and signage of the city government’s events which prominently carried colored and usually “studio pose” photos of Mayor Stephany Uy-Tan.

The citizen reporter, who requested anonymity, said Uy-Tan should stop being an “epal” if she really is sincere in promoting transparency and accountability in the city. Epal is a Filipino slang that now refers to politicians who habitually place their names and photos on billboards or signs on government programs as if these were their own.

“If she (the mayor) is serious in calling for transparency and accountability and is truly an advocate of good governance, she should stop using government money and activities for her own interest,” the citizen reporter told CANA.

The posters showed Uy-Tan in similar studio pose shots, smiling and at times studded with jewelry. Other recent events announced in the posters are the thanksgiving and recognition of survivors of the November 2013 Super Typhoon Yolanda; celebration of Women’s Month; Independence Day celebration; State of the City Address and job fair; and ‘Scholar Day’. One poster, without the Mayor’s photo but with the name “Mayor Step”, announced schedules of free circumcision as part of the city government’s free health services.

The citizen reporter, who requested anonymity, said Uy-Tan should stop being an “epal” if she really is sincere in promoting transparency and accountability in the city. The citizen said this practice violates the Department of Interior and Local Government’s (DILG) Memorandum Circular 2010-101, which bans elected local officials such as governors, mayors, and members of local Sanggunian (council) to place their names, initials, or photos in posters, tarpaulins, billboards, and other signage of government programs and properties.

Issued on September 23, 2010, the circular mandates that “information on a government project should only be limited to its name, location, contractor, the date when it started and its completion date”. Vehicles, meanwhile, must contain only the official seal or the name of the agency or the local government unit, and be marked with "For Official Use Only."

The anti-epal campaign has gained public support particularly in social media in recent years, publicly shaming officials who plaster their names and pictures on public services and goods – including relief goods distributed to typhoon victims – just to promote themselves.

Among those very vocal against epal politicians is Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who, in 2013, filed Senate Bill No. 54 or the Anti-Signage of Public Works Act, prohibiting public officials from “claiming credit through signage announcing a public works project.” The bill is still pending at the Senate’s Committee on Civil Service and Government Reorganization and Committee on Public Works.

Comedian and social activist Mae Paner (popularly known as Juana Change) has recently taken to social media her challenge to newly appointed Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) director Risa Hontiveros not to become another epal following the proliferation of the agency’s ad at the back of commuter buses flashing her big photo.

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal has recently said that advertisements that “clearly intended only to promote the images of these officials for election purposes” and have no benefit to the people can be charged under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits unnecessary and extravagant public expenditures.

(Rhenn S. Taguiam is an intern for the Citizen Action Network for Accountability. He is an incoming 4th year journalism student from the University of Santo Tomas and writes for the Science and Technology section of UST’s official school publication, The Varsitarian.)