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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The citizen comes first

First ever symposium on citizens’ rights brings public & private organizations together

Ombudsman of Puerto Rico Edwin García Feliciano, right, along with several representatives of organizations participating in the island’s first symposium on public service accountability, titled “Todos somos tu voz” (We Are All Your Voice). (Richard Gutiérrez/The San Juan Daily Star)

By Richard Gutiérrez

Ombudsman of Puerto Rico and former mayor of Camuy Edwin García Feliciano directed the island’s first symposium on public service accountability, titled “Todos somos tu voz” (We Are All Your Voice), on Thursday at the Engineers & Land Surveyors Association offices in San Juan.

The ombudsman described the event as an effort to inform the citizenry regarding their right to demand quality services that government agencies offer.

“This effort complements our vision, to strengthen the conscience of the Puerto Rican citizenry regarding the fact that public services are a citizen’s right,” García Feliciano told the STAR. “Public agencies must maximize their efficiency to guarantee a quick and proper response to address the individual needs of the community.”

A wide array of public and private entities, along with nonprofit organizations, took part in the symposium. The agencies presented the services available to the citizens and described how public funds are administered and protected.

García Feliciano, meanwhile, told the STAR about the services provided by the Ombudsman’s Office in Puerto Rico.

“Our function is to work as a mediator between the citizens of Puerto Rico and government agencies, when these agencies don’t respond to claims made by citizens, meaning that when a citizen went to the respective agency and they were not attended to, we step in to respond for the citizen,” he said. “For example, if somebody has a situation where they made a claim to social services and they did not answer their claim, the individual can come to us and we can start an investigation regarding their particular situation.”

The ombudsman added that the office has handled more than 21,000 cases ahead of next Friday’s end of the fiscal year. The cases come from many different organizations, in García Feliciano’s view this is not a good thing.

“The quantity of people we have attended implies that there are a lot of people who are not being attended to,” he said. “Attending to citizens is our sole obligation as public service providers.”

García Feliciano also stressed the importance of the ombudsman’s office in Puerto Rico and its achievements intervening in the handling of funds that are intended for citizens.

“The importance of having an ombudsman’s office is that we can go straight to the top of any agency and ask them why they have not attended to a particular case,” he said. “On top of that, we also conduct investigations. The most complete investigation regarding closed schools in 2017 was made by us, the most complete investigation regarding shelter facilities in Puerto Rico was also made by us. We recently intervened at the Medical Center because they did not let ambulances park properly, [and] we also intervened with the Urban Train.”

“Recently, the governor announced that they will provide a 50% incentive to small businessmen and businesswomen with fewer than 50 employees. That was a petition we made to the State Insurance Fund, with the money left over last year that was originally going to be used to reduce the cost of fuel,” García Feliciano said. “On February 22 of 2023, in the public hearing on the State Insurance Fund in Mayagüez, we made a petition to the [SIF] board so that the government doesn’t charge the total tax premium to small businesses, just a percentage, and thankfully an incentive has been announced for small businesses. We are also fighting for part of this money to be used to address the medical crisis in Puerto Rico and give out scholarships to students who want to go to college, to help students stay and work here in Puerto Rico.”

The ombudsman added that the main goal with Thursday’s symposium was to bring all organizations together from the private, public and nonprofit sectors so that they can strengthen each other and work together with the Office of the Ombudsman to provide quality services to the community.

He said a second goal of the conference involves the proper management of funds in each respective government agency.

“That means we have to be smart with our money and use the funds we have available properly, without buying things that don’t make sense,” García Feliciano said.

The symposium was hosted by prominent Ponce journalist Luis José Moura and was transmitted through Facebook Live. The first half of the forum was mainly focused on citizens’ rights and covered issues such as health care, public assistance and discrimination against people with disabilities. Representatives of the organizations who participated along with García Feliciano in the first half were: Alberto E. Fradera Vázquez, head of the Family Socioeconomic Development Administration; Edna Díaz de Jesús, an attorney for people with disabilities from The Office of the Patients’ Advocate; and Juan Troche Villeneuve, an attorney from the Office of the Ombudsman for People with Disabilities.

The second half of the conference centered on a panel discussion regarding the growing issue of public funds corruption, which promotes a lack of trust on the part of the people of Puerto Rico and consumes essential resources intended for indispensable services for the community. The panel consisted of Comptroller of Puerto Rico Yesmín Valdivieso, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the San Juan Field Office Joseph González and García Feliciano, who said the symposium addressed the biggest complaint of citizens, which is that the government doesn’t listen to the people.

“We are obligated to be better and to make ourselves much more accessible, and to change the generalized perception of apathy and turn it into absolute satisfaction for services that respond to citizens’ needs, because that impacts their quality of life, health and emotional state,” the ombudsman said.

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