HOR COMPLEX, Quezon City (DWDD) – The House of Representatives is all-out ready for the second State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, July 24, during which he is expected to present the accomplishments of the administration and push for support for his legislative priorities.
House Secretary-General and Task Force SONA 2017 chairman Atty. Cesar Strait Pareja said the chamber has addressed all matters pertaining to internal and external security and safety, protocol arrangements, reception, media coverage, parking and other necessary engineering needs among others, to ensure a safe, secure and orderly holding of the SONA this year.
“We are very much prepared for the SONA. So far, there are no major hitches in the SONA preparations,” said Pareja.
Pareja said the holding of a Special Session on Saturday for Congress to discuss the President’s request for a martial law extension in Mindanao will not derail the House preparations for the SONA.
“We will temporarily halt the remaining preparatory work on Saturday to give way to the special session. We can adjust things. By Sunday, we will resume work and finish what else needs to be done for SONA,” said Pareja.
Pareja said last-minute repair work and other finishing touches will be completed bySunday. The House will also allow the entry of caterers and the staff of RTVM and private media networks who will set up their equipment or facilities on Sunday. Also to be allowed entry are the security staff of the House and other concerned agencies who will be coordinating, manning and securing the House premises; engineering staff; and the staff of the Office of the Secretary-General.
Pareja said also to be finished before the SONA are the new parking structures at the North Wing and South Wing which would give the House additional parking slots of more than 300. Newly constructed also is the new South Wing Annex Roadway which could accommodate 52 vehicles. The roadway was inaugurated last Tuesday.
Pareja said being on top of the SONA preparations has been a big challenge to him especially because of the security issue and the bulk of work involved. “Definitely it’s a heavy responsibility because the head of our government will be here as well as the heads of all agencies. Being the host of the special event, the House has to look after the guests and attend to their requests,” said Pareja.
To ensure that the SONA preparatory activities are properly coordinated and executed, Pareja said they started the coordination meetings as early as January this year. “The in-house with our Task Force, we’ve been meeting since January. There were also monthly regular meetings and then the Task Force meeting. Then the meetings branched out, for instance, the security group had its own coordination meeting with other agencies. The committee on public information also had its own coordination meetings with media entities. The engineering group had its own meeting too, with the DPWH . And then we had the one major coordinaton meeting with all agencies last week. Yung security group mas nakarami ng meetings,” said Pareja.
Last week during the inter-agency meeting, Pareja said the Philippine National Police (PNP) with the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) gave their initial briefing on security issues.
“Our security forces are very prepared. It was discussed during the meeting to hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst,” said Pareja.
The SONA preparations involved the Secretariat staff from different offices, according to Pareja. These include: the Office of the Secretary-General which is in-charge of the overall preparatory activities; the Office of the Speaker for coordination of everything; the Engineering and Physical Facilities for refurbishment, cleaning, shampooing of carpets, upkeep of flag, among others; Inter-Parliamentary Relations Service (IPRS) for protocol matters and the special services assigned to them; Legislative Security for coordination with other agencies involved in providing security not only to the President but also to the lawmakers and guests; Press and Public Affairs for coordination with media entities for news and advisories; Library and Information Resource for the materials to be provided to guests to make them aware of the accomplishments of the House and for other publications; Administration, also for coordination of everything; and Finance.
For food, Pareja said the House again tapped Via Mare, the caterer last year. For last year’s SONA, he said, Malacañang required native delicacies from Davao or from Mindanao, generally. This year, the food will still be low-key, he said.
“There will be similar food from last year and also new ones. We had some discussions on the variation. There will be no serving of alcohol just like last year. Guests will only be served native drinks such as sago, gulaman, and lemonada. This is also in deference to our Muslim brothers who shun alcohol,” said Pareja.
Pareja said the SONA is always significant because it bares the thrusts of the President, what he wants to be done during his term or even during the year. “And the SONA also is where the House or maybe even the Senate takes its cue on what will be the legislative priorities our lawmakers can enact in order to support the policies and plans of the President,” said Pareja.
Pareja thanked the House Secretariat officials and staff involved in the SONA preparatory activities. “I am very proud of what they are doing. I’m very thankful that everyone is cooperating. Everything is fine. Everyone is working hard to make this a success. I’m very thankful for that and for their full support. I also thank the House leadership, especially the Speaker, Majority Floor Leader, and Deputy Speakers, I’m very thankful for the opportunity to work with such professionals,” said Pareja.
Pareja said he has been involved in the SONA preparations since joining the House in 1989, or 28 years ago.
Meanwhile, in terms of security preparations, Deputy Secretary-General for Legislative Operations Atty. Artemio Adasa, Jr. said the Presidential Security Group (PSG) made an ocular inspection of the House last Wednesday.
“The inspection was not only in the Main Building but on the perimeter fences, strengthening their security preparations for SONA. So far they have made some recommendations which they will discuss with our Sergeant-at-Arms Gen. Detabali about these security matters for them to decide,” said Adasa.
He said they were able to finalize with the PSG the actual scenario that will be observed during SONA with the staff from the Office of the President (OP), Presidential Management Staff (PMS), Protocol Office, Appointment Office and PSG. “We addressed already all their concerns, including the holding areas, we’ve shown to them the Legislators’ Lounge which will be used as the holding area for the President,” said Adasa.
Adasa also informed the PSG that the Welcoming Committee will be a small group of six composed of the House Speaker, Senate President, Majority Leaders of the House and the Senate, and the two Secretaries-General of the House and the Senate.
“Unlike before, we had a long line of Welcoming Committee. But this time it was reduced to six because as much as possible we do not want to crowd the path where the President will pass going to his holding area,” said Adasa.
Adasa said they have tightened more the security this year because there are threats against the government. “There is the crisis now in Marawi City, involving an act of rebellion, terrorism, the threat from the New People’s Army (NPA) because the recent ambush that occurred against a group of the PSG in North Cotabato and other activities of the NPA in other areas, and from the militant groups that are against the government on various issues,” said Adasa.
But Adasa said the threat is not that grave to disturb the SONA in particular. “But just the same, before it becomes uncontrollable, we came out with this contingency plan to at least prepare for any eventuality,” said Adasa.
As far as manpower is concerned, Adasa said they have increased it. “Before, we had around 4,000, now 2,000 uniformed men to be deployed to the House for security. But now we increased it to 6,000 plus which includes the whole contingent of police and military, to be deployed mostly outside of the House,” said Adasa.
Inside the House, Adasa said Congress has its own organic security bureau. “We have the blue guards, we have the contingent from the PSG and also the special forces of the public safety office of the PNP. So that comprise the security inside the premises of the House. This is augmented by the PNP and military outside the perimeter of the House. There are about 1,000 combined security persons inside the House premises,” said Adasa.
Aside from this, Adasa said the House also regulates the entry points of the premises to control and determine who are the persons coming into the House.
“We are very strict in enforcing the “No Invitation, No Entry,” “No Car Pass, No Entry” policies. In fact some of the invited guests from different government offices will have their car pool outside and they will ferried by their own buses inside, just like a drop-off system in order to decongest the parking spaces now available in the Batasan Complex,” said Adasa.
Meanwhile, for the reception of lawmakers and guests, IPRS Director Edith Cardenas said all 1,500 seat slots in the Plenary Hall have been filled up by guests and members of Congress per the invitations sent out.
Cardenas said they first sent out the letter invitations before the sine die adjournment last May 31. Then they eventually sent the invitation cards to those who confirmed their SONA attendance.
Those who sent their RSVP replies confirming their attendance were members of the Diplomatic Corps, Members of the Cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court, former Presidents, former Vice Presidents, former House Speakers and former Senate Presidents. Guests of House Members need not send their RSVPs, said Cardenas.
“Hopefully every one of them will arrive on SONA Day,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas said the main tasks of the IPRS staff are attend to the arriving guests, lead them to their designated seats, attend to the arrival of the President, and attend to the cocktail to be served after the SONA at the south lobby.
Cardenas said their SONA preparation this year was different because the task of handling the invitations was assigned to them. The task was previously handled by the Committee Affairs Department (CAD).
“Before, we only handled the food; cocktails; protocol amenities like flowers and other things that need to be extended to the guests, the President and the First Family; and attend to the guests. Now, we are the ones handling the invitations which is taking up half of our time,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas surmised that the SONA turnout will be good because more than 130 former House members have signified to attend the event There were also former senators who would be coming, she said.
She also believes the SONA will be successful because so many people until now are requesting for additional space at the session hall so they can be accommodated. “But we cannot accommodate them anymore. We also said nobody had sent their regrets. ,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas advised the guests to come on time. The House will begin to admit guests at the Plenary Hall at 2 p.m. The doors of the session hall will be closed at 3:30 pm in preparation for the arrival of the President. CONGRESS / MCAG