By Karlitos Brian Decena, Gianfranco Geronimo and Dawnavie Dadis
Fifteen years ago, Ibarra Gutierrez III did the unusual: he served as the student council chairperson of the University of the Philippines Diliman just three months after his term as the editor-in-chief of UP’s official publication, the Philippine Collegian.
But Gutierrez’s uniqueness did not change an old misdeed the University Student Council (USC) has been doing through the years. In fact, he just shrugged it off.
“Since it was not being enforced anyway, nobody felt the need to, I suppose, comply with it,” Gutierrez said. “I can’t even recall a single USC that did that.”
The USC has, over the years, ignored a simple yet crucial provision in its constitution (see here: 1980 USC constitution), raising issues on whether or not the council is accountable enough to students whose tuition comprise a big chunk of its funds.
Issues of the Collegian for the past 30 years archived for this report revealed that since the creation of the USC constitution in 1980, only seven student councils published their financial reports in the newspaper. Art. VIII, Sec. 4 of the constitution requires the publication of the council’s financial report in the Collegian every semester.
A wide gap of years divides every USC financial report that graces the Collegian. Worse, all of the reports failed to comply with the requirements of the constitution. It took 12 years from the creation of USC constitution for the first statement of finances to come out, during the time of Angelo Jimenez as the USC chair in 1991.
However, Jimenez’s report, the only one during the 1990s, covered only first half of his term.
No reports were published during the 1980s, the period when the constitution was created.
Eleven years passed before the next financial report of the council was published under the leadership of Rommel Romato in 2002. However, the report still failed to obey the constitution as it only covered the first semester of the academic year.
The 2002 USC financial report was followed by five other councils – under JPaul Manzanilla in 2003, Kristian Ablan in 2004, Shahana Abdulwahid in 2007, Herminio Bagro III in 2008 and Titus Tan in 2009. The 2000s was a major turnaround from the past decades as six statements of finances were published during that time.
These councils, however, still failed to comply with the provision, as they published the financial reports only once during their terms.
Interviews with some former council chairpersons and Collegian editors for the past 30 years cited various reasons for not following the constitution. Gutierrez claimed the records suddenly disappeared when they were about to make the financial report.
“For some strange reason, all the records… (they were) all lost!” Gutierrez said.
He said the record-keeping system of the council was not secure, resulting to a loss of important documents that the council only realized during the final days of their term.
Meanwhile, 2009 USC Chairperson Titus Tan cited the problematic transition of power from the outgoing to the incoming councils as the reason for the non-publication of the council’s financial reports.
Preparing the reports and clearing up the council’s funds, Tan said, are usually done at the end of the term – contrary to the semi-annual requirement of the constitution – when most council members have already graduated and lost interest in finishing tasks.
“There is a culture (in the council) that after the term, many (of the council members)
disappear,” Tan said.
Former Collegian Editor-in-Chief Herbert Docena also said that he would have published the council’s finances if the USC gave him its reports.
“I don’t remember him (USC chair) or any other council member giving the Collegian a copy of their financial statement,” said Docena, the 2000 Collegian chief. “And it would certainly have been newsworthy (if it was published).”
But the USC should not be solely blamed for breaking the rules. After all, it is the Collegian that has the say as to what issue and page section the financial reports would come out.
Former Collegian editor-in-chief Raphael Lotilla said pressing issues during his time pushed aside the release of the financial statement of the USC.
“I recall the requirement of publication of the financial report, but the (student population) was occupied with the Aquino assassination and the waves of events that swept through our student lives at that time,” said Lotilla, the newspaper’s head in 1983.
Another former staffer, Bernard Cobarrubias, said the USC furnished them a copy of a financial report, but his fellow editors argued against its publication due to lack of space in the newspaper.
“I recall that the Collegian had no space for it, to the dismay of the then USC reps,” said Cobarrubias, who served as the features editor before becoming the Collegian editor-in-chief in1993.
Compared to other USC-related stories that consistently appeared in its issues, such as yearly assessments and the attendance of the council members for the whole term, most of the financial reports were almost unnoticeable to the readers.
In fact, only four of the seven financial reports published in the Collegian occupied at least half of the paper’s page. The rest only occupied small spaces of the Collegian – comparable to the sizes of today’s classified ads. Two financial reports came with an article – in 2002 when a feature story about the history of the USC was put alongside the statement of funds, and the 2008 report when it was accompanied by an article on the assessment of the USC for the 100th anniversary of UP.
Cobarrubias, now a lawyer, said this issue is reflective of how independent the Collegian is from the USC.
“On USC’s part, they may presumably just want to comply with the requirement… But on the Collegian’s part, it would want to exercise its broad editorial prerogative,” Cobarrubias said.
But whichever of the council or Collegian is at fault, neither institution strictly followed the constitution. The reason, Tan said, is the constitution’s lack of a “penalizing mechanism” that would assure all of its provisions followed and its violators liable.
“So even if that certain council did not release (the financial reports), they would get away with it because there is no mechanism to run after them,” Tan said. “The only thing that would make them do so is accountability from the students.”
Tan believes that students should demand the USC to make its finances public.
“(What is needed) is pressure from the students. When it’s your term, it’s your (the council) name that is in it (financial reports),” he said.
Napoleon Poblador, the 1982 Collegian chief, also pointed out that the provision is necessary to ensure the funds of the council are spent on reasonable activities and projects.
“Students have the right to know how the money they contribute is being spent by the people they elect to man the USC,” Poblador said. “These people, being only human, will be tempted to abuse their prerogatives (if the provision is not followed).”
Last year’s USC chairperson Rainier Sindayen echoed the same sentiments, saying that students should be well-informed with how the USC works with its finances.
However, no financial reports were published during Sindayen’s term, citing the resignation of their finance committee head as a reason.
“Due to the inefficiency of our finance committee, we were not able to make a financial report,” Sindayen said.
Current USC chairperson Jemimah Garcia, meanwhile, vows to fix this dilemma under her watch.
“Rest assured that our Finance Committee is a hardworking committee,” Garcia said. “This USC will release its semestral financial reports through the Oblation (USC’s official publication), and more importantly through the Philippine Collegian, as mandated by the USC Constitution.”
Sindayen, however, rejected the idea of amending the constitution to resolve this practice of the council.
“I think the house rules would suffice to address that in the interest of transparency and accountability to our constituents,” Sindayen said.
Tan, meanwhile, said that a system involving other offices in the university is needed to ensure that both the council and the Collegian abide to the rules.
“These kinds of mechanisms (are needed) to hold accountable (those who do not follow the rules), ” Tan said.
But Gutierrez, now a law professor at UP, remains unfazed with the issue, saying there is really no big deal publishing the financial reports of the council.
“Even if the formal requirement was not followed, I don’t think that there was injury done to everyone,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez added that the students would have little interest on it since the council funds are too small.
“I suppose the amounts concerned are very trivial,” Gutierrez said. “I can’t even remember one meeting that we were given one softdrink.”
This report was originally written by journalism students Decena, Geronimo and Dadis for their investigative reporting class last semester.