Bacolod Mayor Evelio Leonardia expressed alarm over the sudden and extremely unusual influx of transferee-registrants from out-of-town areas at the Bacolod office of the Commission on Elections early this week, and called on lawyer Ma. Fatima Aspan to inhibit herself from assuming as acting city poll officer to preserve the integrity of the ongoing voter’s registration process.
Aspan, the current provincial election supervisor for Negros Occidental, was designated as acting Bacolod election officer starting September 14 by Comelec Regional Director Wilfredo Jay Balisado, after a staff of the city Comelec office tested positive for Covid-19.
Incumbent Bacolod election officer Kathrina Trinio-Cana, on one hand, had a negative RT-PCR result on September 15.
In his September 17 letter to Aspan, a copy of which was received by her office Saturday, Leonardia called her attention to the fact that her designation was temporary and good only until incumbent election officer Cana posts a negative result in her RT-PCR test.
But Aspan continued to supervise the affairs of Comelec Bacolod, including the ongoing voter registration despite Cana’s negative RT-PCR, Leonardia argued.
“Despite the fact that EO (Kathrina Trinio) Cana has tested negative for Covid, you did not have the delicadeza to return to your regular post at the PES. There is a very strong general impression that your presence at Bacolod Comelec until now, with the questionable massive influx there of transferee-registrants from out-of-town areas, especially from those previously served by Mr. (Alfredo Abelardo Bantug) Benitez as congressman, puts your integrity seriously in question,” Leonardia added.
Observers, including members of major radio networks and police personnel at the Station 1 Precinct, who had been helping maintain physical distancing and observing health protocols, witnessed throngs of supposed out-of-town registrants since Tuesday with many of them bringing rice cookers, mats, mattresses, rice, canned goods and cans of biscuits, tagging along with them even children, who are mostly minors.
On Wednesday, Station 1 operatives said the long line snaked through from the Bacolod Comelec area down to SM City at the Reclamation Area as early as 4am.
The line probably breached the 300-meter distance or more, police said.
The following day, Thursday, a long line, also past the 300-meter mark, was seen from Comelec all the way past the plaza bandstand up to Gatuslao Street near Jollibee, the PNP noted.
A deaf-mute transferee from Bago City fainted due to the heat. He later told the DRRMO rescue unit that he had not taken breakfast but tried to have his voter registration transferred because he was offered P1,000.
Other voter-transferees came all the way from a hacienda in Isabela town and rural barangay in Talisay City, Silay City and as far as Victorias City
In his September 17 letter, Leonardia minced no words in expressing his opposition to Aspan’s temporary assumption as Comelec Bacolod EO in the light of the reported Covid-19 infections among election personnel.
“While I personally commiserate with the situation, at the outset and with all due respect, I have strong reservations on this move; I, therefore, oppose your assumption as acting Election Officer for Bacolod City,” Leonardia, himself a lawyer, said.
It is a well-known fact, Leonardia continued, that Aspan had served as election officer of Victorias City, which belongs to the province’s Third District.
Benitez had served as Third District congressman for three terms before transferring his voter’s registration in Bacolod City sometime this year.
“Without necessarily casting aspersions, there are strong doubt’s, however, on your impartiality considering that my opponent, who had already declared to run as Bacolod city mayor in the upcoming national and local elections, is none other than Mr. Alfredo Abelardo Bantug Benitez, who served as a three-term congressman in the 3rd District where you used to work as election officer,” the mayor said.
Another ground cited by Leonardia was Aspan’s presence at the Comelec Bacolod last July 19 when the local poll body held its exclusion hearing over the issue of the residency/domicile of Benitez.
“You surprisingly appeared at the said office just about the same time when Mr. Benitez also arrived for his hearing. You stayed inside the office while the hearing was ongoing and then left as soon as the hearing was over,” Leonardia pointed out.
Many witnesses, he said, had seen Aspan inside the Comelec Bacolod office, and are willing to attest to this fact.
“Your said unwarranted presence, together with Mr. Benitez, at the Bacolod Comelec office under aforementioned circumstances cannot just be a coincidence but an act inappropriate, unbecoming and highly suspicious of a PES, and which could even be construed as intended to press undue influence over the outcome of the ERB decision, which came out to be favorable to Mr. Benitez,” Leonardia said.
Leonardia further noted that when Aspan temporarily assumed as Bacolod election officer she “exercised a very confusing policy, which miserably affected crowd management and wrought havoc upon social distancing protocols against COVID-19”.
The standing policy for crowd control is to limit the daily capacity for registrants to only 300 persons and 50 more for online applicants but last September 16, Aspan insisted to also entertain 200 more online applications despite the massive crowding outside Bacolod Comelec.
“This shows that you processed as many as 500 applicants that day, which obviously disregarded the health and safety protocols against the Covid-19 pandemic, Leonardia said.
Leonardia reminded Aspan that recently, a spike in Covid-19 cases has been recorded, especially that the Delta variant is apparently affecting Bacolodnons.
“With this development, you should have, by your initiative, ordered the temporary stoppage of voters’ registration or, at the very least, controlled the number per day to what is allowed under the present health protocols,” Leonardia said.
He also lamented that Aspan did not bother to consult the Bacolod IATF/Bacolod Emergency Operations Center Task Force about this ordinary course of action for the safety of the general public.*