In 2014, the University Student Government’s (USG) Office of the Ombudsman was abolished due to its unconstitutionality. Several attempts have been made to re-establish the office in the following years, with the most recent being in 2016. This year, the Legislative Assembly (LA) successfully passed the Ombudsman Act, which will be included as one of the key constitutional amendments to the USG Constitution in the upcoming plebiscite.
Taking the necessary steps
The revival of the Office of the Ombudsman was the product of a mutual agreement between the members of the majority and minority floors, shared Nicole Cruz, EXCEL2017 LA Representative and Minority Floor Leader. “We both met eye-to-eye na okay, we need to do this now kasi if not now—when can we do it? I think that what opened the big opportunity was the fact na there’s a plebiscite coming up,” she expounded.
However, the LA is not rushing the re-establishment process for the office. Provisions stipulated in the Ombudsman Act state that the coming AY 2018-2019 will function as a transition year. During this time, the Judiciary branch will work closely with the LA for the recruitment and training processes, establishment of key features like the Initial Rules of Internal Rules of Governance for the office, and the appointment of the first set of Deputy Ombudsmen.
Lance Dela Cruz, EXCEL2019 LA Representative and one of the authors of the Ombudsman Act, maintains that the Judiciary’s role in the re-establishment process will not compromise the independence of the Office of the Ombudsman. “[The LA] made sure that the Ombudsman would be an independent body from all three branches [of the USG] so that it would be able to operate without bias and that it would serve as the body that checks [if] everyone is doing their job,” he clarified.
In the past, the Office of the Ombudsman was placed under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary—unlike the Commission on Audit and Commission on Elections which were formed under the USG’s Constitutional Commissions.
On provisions and technicalities
The Ombudsman Act clearly defines the office’s mandate to serve “as protectors of the student body, [by acting] promptly on complaints filed in any form or manner against any USG office or USG officer, and shall, in appropriate cases, notify the complainants of the actions taken and the result thereof.”
The office will be composed of an Ombudsman, Overall Deputy Ombudsman, Laguna Campus Government (LCG) Ombudsman, and the Deputy Ombudsmen. Each undergraduate college in the Manila campus must be represented by a Deputy Ombudsman. Additionally, there may be more than one LCG Ombudsman provided that the number does not exceed the number of colleges in the Laguna campus.
As part of the qualifications needed to hold a position in the office, each member must have at least three terms left in their stay in the University. Second, they must not have actively supported nor been a part of any political party. They must also be knowledgeable of the USG Constitution and its bylaws. Lastly, an additional clause also states that the student must not have been a part of any student media organization in the past. This condition, according to Dela Cruz, was added because “the Judiciary was concerned that the investigations might be compromised [because it is possible that] something that should be private will go public without the investigation being finished.”
The LA will then evaluate the candidates for Deputy Ombudsmen before confirming their appointment. Once this is accomplished, the Deputy Ombudsmen will then elect among themselves the Ombudsman, Overall Deputy Ombudsman, and the LCG Ombudsman. If only one Deputy Ombudsman from the Laguna Campus is appointed, they will automatically assume the position of LCG Ombudsman. All members will serve a term of one academic year, during which they cannot simultaneously hold another position in any other branch of the USG – whether appointed or elected.
The plebiscite and what the future holds
Cruz has high hopes for the future of the Office of the Ombudsman, particularly when it comes to incentivizing the student body to be observant and mindful of how the USG is performing. “We set [the Office of the Ombudsman] up in the first place for the purpose of accountability. I think that if we would be able to hold [officers] accountable and release information for students to see that this is what’s happening in the student government and that there’s action being taken. They would be able to know that [this] is what’s happening in the USG—there is due process and there is accountability in what we’re doing,” she firmly concluded.
Dela Cruz echoes her sentiments as he considers the re-establishment of the office to be part of a long-term plan that will help rebuild the students’ trust in the USG. However, he also emphasizes that the true success of the Ombudsman Act is contingent on the upcoming plebiscite, which will be done in conjunction with the upcoming General Elections (GE).
Coincidentally, the last plebiscite held in the University was done the same year the Office of the Ombudsman was abolished. At that time, only 8.49 percent of the student population cast their votes. To avoid the possibility of history repeating itself, an agreement was brokered with the Commission on Elections for the inclusion of a section in this year’s GE ballot that will be dedicated for the student’s plebiscite vote. Given that both the GE and plebiscite need a minimum vote count of 50 percent plus one, Dela Cruz hopes that the move will increase the chances of a successful plebiscite and in turn, the introduction of much-needed amendments to the USG Constitution.