Civic Engagement in Naga City

November 28, 2007

Last October 9, 2007, the Sangguniang Panlungsod passed another landmark law, the Local Sectoral Representation (LSR) Ordinance. This ordinance, another first in Philippine LGU history, now paves the way for sectoral representation in the Sanggunian, implementing Section 457B of the 1992 Local Government Code. As expected, it was passed not without the debate and drama like what happened when the People Empowerment Program (PEP) Ordinance was deliberated and approved in 1995. (The sponsor, then Councilor now PAGC Commissioner James Jacob, contemplated on giving up his seat in the Sanggunian in protest over the seemingly endless objections on his proposal.) This time, the different sectors were up against each other, lobbying for a possible seat. The regular members of the Sanggunian were debating as to whether the sectoral representatives shall receive the same compensation and privileges as they do. The ordinance will require an additional appropriation of at least P 2.2Million annually. The question as to how the sectoral representatives will be nominated and elected, eventually led to one member abstaining from the voting. In fact, these concerns resulted to several revisions of the proposed draft ordinance. While all the Sanggunian members agreed in principle that LSR would further enhance representation, diversity and quality of deliberations in the legislative body, there were more reasons to disagree than agree. I certified the passage of the LSR ordinance “as urgent” in my State of the City Report last July 30, 2007. Several committee hearings were already conducted. It was time to call a vote. As they say, the devil is in the detail.  But, all is well that ends well. The ordinance was passed by a vote of 9 in favor, 2 against and 1 abstention. Like in the past, the Sanggunian rose above their own personal interests and reservations. Looking beyond their terms, I believe the Councilors knew that this was good for the city. Better governance always has its costs — the additional budget, the new Sanggunian members they have to contend with in pushing for their own advocacies and the diminution of their influence in so far as committee assignments are concerned. It was agreed that the Implementing Rules & Regulations (IRR) of the ordinance should resolve most, if not all, of the issues.

The leadership of the Naga City government has blazed the trail in sharing its power with civil society. Over the years, it has passed several ordinances that effectively emasculated the local government’s authority and  further democratized decision making within its jurisdiction, beyond what was required by law . To think that since 1992 up to now, the incumbent leadership virtually has a monopoly of power. All the elected officials belong to just one political aggrupation, having been elected and  re-elected on a straight ticket in the last 15 years (from mayor, vice mayor up to the last kagawad including the ABC Federation and SK Federation representatives). At the same time that they have rewritten  Naga City’s political history, convincingly winning every electoral contest in the last 15 years, they have opened new avenues for engagement between the local government and civil society, by providing a working model for other LGUs to see. (Upi, Maguindanao has its Upi People’s Council. Infanta, Quezon and Legazpi City, Albay have similar bodies. All of them took off from the Naga City’s 1995 People Empowerment Ordinance.) What many fail to realize is that the incumbents’ electoral successes are probably the result of sharing power with the unelected representatives of the locality. In other words, by sharing power, they further secured their hold on power. While I am certain this was farthest from the minds of those who pioneered people participation in the city, apparently this is an unintended outcome that can convince the leadership of other LGUs to follow the same path. I have been asked a number of times in several fora of local officials how we have managed to win on a straight ticket in the last six local elections. (Time and again, our detractors alleged that what we have accomplished were statistical improbabilities . . . and we cheated!) I said that civic engagement significantly contributed to our electoral victories. The logic is indisputable. Certainly, people would elect a government where they have a reasonable say on how it will respond to their problems and address public concerns. Certainly, the Naga City People’s Council would prefer a leadership that they are a part of and would use their influence to promote it.

How did this all come to be? Civil society’s engagement with the local government of Naga City began when COPE Inc. (Community Organizers of Philippine Enterprises), an NGO promoting tenurial rights, organized several urban poor associations to form a federation. Their main agenda was to seek help from both the local and national governments in resolving long-standing land tenure programs in the city. While the initial relationship with the city government was adversarial (according to some city hall sources, some of the leaders were allegedly fronting for the “left), a change in administration in 1988 opened a small window for dialogue. Jointly working on small successes and eventually making breakthroughs in resolving tenurial issues, the stage was set to step up engagement from projects to programs and from programs to policies.  This brought about the formation of the NGO-PO Council, the precursor of the Naga City People’s Council, whose task was to institutionalize the relationship and build the capacity of the NGOs to effectively work with the city government. Civil society participation was thus borne out of a mutual recognition that development goals can be best achieved when the local government and non-government sector work together. The recognition was forged not because of the mere rationality of the principle but as a result of demonstrable outcomes (such as tenure for the urban poor). Of course, this was made possible because the elected officials subscribed to the same idea. It was in 1992 when we first got elected on a straight ticket.  Except for one, all the councilors were neophytes. Half of them have been identified with the “moderate left”. There was  therefore a confluence of actors  and programs that allow the engagement to blossom. Looking back, this would have been extremely difficult if we had the opposing members of the 1988 Sanggunian reelected in 1992. In fact, the PEP Ordinance, despite all of us belonging to just one political group, had to go through the wringer before it was passed in 1995. Opposing it was a matter of principle for some of the members. Supporting was a way to secure support of the NGO block for some. For us, myself and the sponsors of the ordinance,  it was a test on how far we can push further the democratization of power in the city. The ordinance allowed non-elected NGO representatives in all the Sanggunian committees as members (meaning they are part of the quorom, can vote and can debate with the regularly elected councilors). In the context of local political realities, it was like putting an opposition in the deliberations when there was none. On hindsight, the first attempt to institutionalize civic engagement in our governance system succeeded because : 1) mutual trust, borne out of successful confidence-bulding projects like the tenure program for the urban poor, was cultivated and developed, 2) civil society organizations collectively demonstrated that they were not only capable of constructively engaging with their LGU but they also possessed the political acumen and clout to influence public opinion, and 3) the local leadership viewed the engagement as a vehicle to expand its capacity, resources and institutionalize its initiatives in the long-term. Elected officials come and go. If there is one thing that is permanent in a locality, it is the constituency. A broad network of civil society organizations that represents the different sectors in the community can very well mirror the sentiments, hopes and dreams of the Nagueno. The PEP Ordinance was a “process response” to the political uncertainties of the future. But then, it can also be gleaned as a “political response” to ensure the continuity of the status quo. In several gatherings of NGOs in Bicol, I have often emphasized that at the end of the day, NGOs should draw their strength from their own selves. The political realities require that they must have the numbers, significant enough, so as not to be ignored by the important political players. Otherwise, they have to rely on the “benevolence” of an enlightened leadership to allow them to exert their influence in the governance process. In the case of Naga City, all the elements were in place at the right moment.

In 2001, the i-Governance Ordinance was passed. While the PEP Ordinance promoted engagement with organized groups, the i-Governance Ordinance focused on engagement with the ordinary citizens by freely providing the citizenry with information on almost anything they need to know about their local govrnment unit. The rationale was the Nagueno, if properly informed, will respond to the initiatives of their local government unit. The Nagueno, if properly informed, will expect their local government unit to comply with set procedures and response time standards, as they will be made accountable as these are publicly announced. While the PEP Ordinance emasculated the Sanggunian, the i-Governance Ordinance almost eliminated the exercise of discretion of the executive departments in their dealings with their clients. Transparency, accountability and engagement marked the initiative. The i-Governance Ordinance easily passed the Sanggunian. If there was discomfort, as this was a “journey to the untried and untested“, it was with the managers of the different operating departments of the city government. The i-Governance Program was a significant milestone because it  empowered the ordinary citizen, who probably would have remained nameless and faceless, if engagements were only confined to organizations and interest groups. In contrast to the LSR and PEP Ordinances, the i-Governance Ordinance was a “leadership driven” initiative that was offered rather than demanded. It was conceived to complement the PEP Ordinance. More importantly, the i-Governance Ordinance sought to put in place mechanisms that will protect the gains of the incumbent administration. In this respect, the view was that, we, the incumbents will not ask of our successors what we are not willing to subject ourselves to. In this respect, the i-Governance Program really hinges on the kind of leadership a locality has.

Are these initiatives replicable? Yes, because as demonstrated in Infanta, Legazpi City and Upi, the PEP Ordinance can be replicated. How difficult or easy it would be depends on how active and influential civil society is in the locality and  how responsive the local government is. Morever, the degree of engagement and empowerment will be dictated by the political and technical capacity of NGOs and POs and the political dynamics in the local government unit. In the case of Naga City, it was an offshoot of having all elected officials come from a single political aggrupation which wanted to have an institution that can fiscalize the local government unit during and long after their terms of office. In the case of Naga City, it was a result of having NGOs and POs who were asking and waiting for the opportunity to be part of the governance process. Replication can therefore be calibrated depending on the willingness and readiness of the entities involved. The i-Governance Program is easily the most replicable as most of its components are now in place in many localities in the country. The PEP Ordinance is being popularized by NGO groups and donor agencies. The challenge of replicability is with the LSR Ordinance. Naga City’s experience can break long standing barriers. In like manner, if it does not work, it will further set back the implementation of a constitutional provision whose implementation is long overdue.

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Panlilio’s Woes

November 18, 2007

November 18, 2007

While I was watching Governor Ed Panlilio narrating the details as to how he got the P 500,000 “gift” after a Malacanang meeting, over ANC, our 13 year old daughter, Tricia, asked me what the issue was all about. (She has been lately quite interested with current events — a collateral value of being part of the school debating team.) I shared with her my thoughts on the matter and explained how the Governor’s woes came to be. Tricia, in all her innocence, said “ano ba yan!”.

“Ano ba yan!” I guess this aptly expresses the exasperation that most Filipinos feel upon learning of the saga of Governor Panlilio, the priest turned governor of the province of Pampanga. A good man, with the best of intentions, who just wants to be true to himself (difficult as it may be in the new arena he is in), he is now the subject of partisan fire simply because he told the truth. The “herd mentality” is again at play. While I understand why his fellow governors cannot stand up for him even if they know the truth, I can not imagine the League of Provinces (the association of governors) coming out with a one page newspaper ad that discredits Governor Panlilio. (They could not even get their act together. One governor was asking for his share of the gravy, ridiculing the crap that the money came from their own league. This is no different from one Congressman claiming that money came from party funds, while other party members disclaim knowledge of it. ) Money changed hands. At least two governors admitted they received it. An ABS-CBN footage showed elected officials holding bags, like that one of Governor Ed, before boarding their cars. If there is really nothing wrong with it, people who have been responsible for the dole-outs should just explain and be forthright with the facts. Like in the past, the problem now are the attempts to cover it up. In the process of doing so, Governor Ed is now being portrayed as the goat. How sad it is when the leaders we look up to can not be relied upon to speak and uphold the truth because of partisan allegiances. The “gift” has brought out the best and the worst in many of them.

I doubt if the truth can be publicly ferreted out at this time. Those who can attest to it would rather not speak out. Those who want to muddle it are all over the airlanes and the pages of the newspaper. I am sure our people are more perceptive than they are presumed to be. They know who to believe. They know who is taking them for a ride. Unfortunately, they would rather watch from the sidelines and bottle up their indignation.

Something is wrong when we freely allow good men to be persecuted. (Governor Panlilio is now a respondent in a case filed a group of lawyers for admitting he received the “gift”.) But it is worse when people are aghast but are silent. It is too early to say whether Governor Panlilio will succeed in his quixotic journey — delivering the outcomes to fulfill his mandate as local chief executive and defining a new way of conducting oneself while in office. But in a lot of ways, how he will fare depends on how we, who believe in him, can muster the courage to stand up for him. As they say, for evil to triumph it only takes good men to do nothing. We may be as helpless and as powerless as the ordinary man in the street. But all the more, this is the reason why we should stand up for him. He is the only one standing up for us!


Sumilao Walk

November 17, 2007

November 16, 2007

This morning my wife, Leni and I, together with hundreds of other sympathizers joined the Sumilao Marchers from the Naga City boundary to Plaza Quince Martires. The segment covered around 6 kilometers — a very short distance compared to the 1100 kilometers or so covered by the group, which started from Sumilao, Bukidnon. (It did not seem short to me. I was too tired to stay on for the rest of the short program.)

Looking back, I must say that the Naga City segment of the march was probably short in distance but long on the lessons and insights that we took away from the experience. I was pleasantly surprised with how the people of the city responded. There is really something different in the Nagueno! He can be counted upon to make a stand and choose what is just and what is right. He will walk the extra mile, literally and figuratively, if called upon.

The marchers included old women, young men and simple folks who are victims of the inequities in our society. While many of us would have given up the fight if we were in the same situation, they have hang on to that slim hope that their grievances would be addressed if they try “hard enough”. We hope and pray that their pleas will be heeded. But even if they won’t be, I believe they still have succeeded. Many times in the past, we have closed our eyes on the injustices and inequities in our midst. The marchers have reminded us, that the least we could do is to stand up and be counted. Oftentimes, we hesitate because we are afraid to displease people who we might need to count on, at a future time. (This is especially true with politicians!). But if only we can right the wrong now, probably we might not have the need for them in the future as they no longer have the influence over us. The Sumilao March mirrors the general picture of our society today. Poor people continue to suffer. Influential people, fearful of the loss of their pelf and influence, idly sit back and watch where the wind will blow before they cast their lots. Meanwhile, the decision makers wait for these influential people to make their move so they can fittingly respond. This is how I look at the Sumilao problem. This is how problems of inequities come to be.

The Sumilao march is scheduled to end in Malacanang before the second week of December, after covering 1500+ kilometers. I do not know what awaits them. But I am certain of one thing. They have restored my faith in the Filipino human spirit. They may not be as many as I would have wished them to be. But they have sown the seeds — if not in the many places they have marched through, at least they have done so in Naga City.


Casureco II Blues

November 11, 2007

November 3, 2007

Last October 31, 2007, many places in Naga City experienced long brownouts, some lasting until the next day. This was after two days of continuous rains and moderate winds swept through the city and incapacitated some power lines. The weather disturbance was quite weak and the damage it brought about was not extensive. The affected residents therefore expected that the power service would be immediately restored. And I thought so, too.

But Casureco II, our electric cooperative, adding further to its reputation of being insensitive to the plight of its member-consumers, again took its sweet time to mobilize its men and work on restoring the power service. The OIC-General Manager could not be located. The customer service telephone number provided over radio station DWNX was not in service. Claims that linemen were working on the affected areas were disputed by the residents of said areas themselves. No repair crew were on sight in many of them. A sitio near the residence of the Board President of the cooperative endured more than a day with no electricity.

What ails Casureco II? For one, it has grown to be so callous that it no longer cares what the member-consumers say. According to an insider, the incident last October 31, 2007 happened because Casureco II management compelled some of the maintenance crew to take leaves of absences because they were running in the barangay elections. Casureco II management, for the first time, and with hardly any contingency plan at all, complied with a NEA memorandum on the matter. (How I wish the Board and Management would also comply with NEA Circulars that will benefit the consumers!) We were therefore being taken for a ride when the cooperative assured us that power will restored immediately. Surely, they knew that once the rainy season sets in, transformer and line malfunctions become more frequent. It is just that they hardly care at all.

The Board and Management of Casureco II has been hounded by allegations of mismanagement, misspending, abuse of authority and overpricing in its procurements. NEA, in fact, ordered the cooperative to take back the money that the Board granted to the party list group, APEC, through the Bicol Electric Cooperatives Asscoiation (BECA). The Board’s explanation explanation was full of holes. In fact, the disbursement is now the subject of an administrative case against management and members of the Board. I presume this is only the tip of the iceberg. I recall that the OIC-General Manager admitted over the radio that surplus transformers were passed on as new ones by their supplier. After these were discovered, he claimed that price discounts were negotiated to cover up for the deficiency. Something is clearly wrong when suppliers pass on surplus units as new ones. But it is much worse when Casureco II merely gives them a pat on the wrist and figures out a way to “fix the problem”. If the report of its internal auditors is true, the infractions committed by management and the Board are more serious than the BECA donation. I supposed it will be a matter of time before these becomes public.

What then needs to be done? I believe it is high time that member-consumers consider the abolition of the Board and return the cooperative’s management to NEA. While this may seem contrary to the tenets of promoting more accountability in the cooperative’s engagement with the consumers, it is the best thing that can happen given the kind of service that the cooperative is providing. There was a time when instead of elected members, sectoral representatives were nominated by religious and socio-civic groups in its coverage area. While it may seem “not so democratic”, the consumers were better served by them. (MNWD, which unquestionably, is run much better than Casureco II, does not have elected members sitting in their Board.) I hope I can convince the Sangguniang Panlungsod and the other concerned groups in the city to move for a  NEA take-over of our electric cooperative. By now, it is no surprise that the members of the board are perceived to be more after the perks, privileges and “other interests”  rather than the interest of the consumers of the utility firm. The way things are going, it certainly will get worse before it gets better. Thus, the need for us to unsettle the cooperative and advocate something drastic while time is still on our side.

For a time, I thought that there was an even chance for reform to take root in our cooperative. The new members of the Board promised before they got elected that they would make the operation of the utility firm more transparent and responsive to the needs of the consuming public.  I recall  when Mr. Lito del Rosario was Director, he pushed fo some drastic changes, including the participation of the Naga City People’s Council in the affairs of the cooperative. He wanted an NGO observer in the procurement process. He wanted transparency in the operations of Casureco II. It was a losing battle. Mr. del Rosario ended his term without getting these changes across. Almost all of the members of the Board advocated for reforms when they ran for office. Alas, once they got their bearings, they became part of the status quo. Seems like the “Lucifer effect” coming into play — something endemically wrong is really in that Board Room. Seemingly good people, with the best intentions, suddenly now losing their bearings and forgetting why they wanted to be in that board room in the first place.

Like many of its member-consumers, I have lost hope that things will get better with the way things are now. It is therefore incumbent upon us to act if we feel aggrieved. I doubt if Casureco II and NEA will act on its own, without our behest. In the interest of its consumers, I hope they prove me wrong!


Oddballs?

November 3, 2007

October 31, 2007

It was my wife, Leni, who thought that I should put up my own blog. While I do write and edit some technical papers that I present from time to time, I do not consider writing as a good suit of mine. But Leni is right. Over the last 21 years, I have been in and out of government service. My experiences and the lessons I have learned, probably are worth sharing. More so, because I have not been part of the “establishment” most of the time but have managed to survive, despite the odds.

Over the years, I have come to realize that it is not enough that you are right when you are dealing with the “powers that be”. You also need clout — influential allies and strong constituency support. I was Program Director of the Bicol River Basin Development Program in 1986 when I had my first brush with the “ways of the powerful”. Then Prime Minister, the late Salvador Laurel, the head of the agency where our office belonged, summoned me to his office and directed me to appoint the nephew of the late Senator Edmundo Cea (who was an UNIDO supporter) as Deputy Director. Politely, I explained that it was not possible. The position was occupied by a career employee. The next thing I knew it was already me who was being replaced. While I was just on leave from San Miguel Corporation then and could have left in disgust, I decided to fight it out. It was a matter of doing what was right. I took the matter to court which took cognizance of the injustice that was about to be done. Then Prime Minister Laurel was restrained from firing me.

I was barely a month in office as Mayor when then Governor Luis Villafuerte, my political patron, wanted me to endorse his former high school classmate as Chief of Police of the city. Politely, I refused to sign the endorsement letter because I did not want to “politicize” the police force. I was also wary that “jueteng” would then freely operate in the city. The Governor was influential. He secured the appointment from then PNP Chief Ramon Montano despite the absence of the required endorsement. I was a neophyte and an unknown politician. I needed somebody, as influential, to intercede for me. Upon my request, the Archbishop did. President Cory Aquino replaced the Villafuerte appointee. That was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the Villafuertes.

Near the close of my term as President of the League of Cities of the Philippines in 1997, a manifesto supporting “charter change” was being circulated. Such change would have lifted the term limits of elected officials, including that of former President Ramos. The Presidents of the League of Provinces and League of Municipalities signed the manifesto. All the President’s allies endorsed the manifesto. I decided not to. I was for President Ramos! (I believe he was one of the best Presidents our country has ever had.) But I was against amending the charter just to perpetuate ourselves in office. (I was on my third-term then.) I knew I disappointed our senior party leaders with my stand. But it had to be so.

When the Liberal Party was split between the pro-GMA and anti-GMA wing last year, emissaries from the pro-GMA wing tried convincing me to join the group with the usual promises of “protection” and support. I was aware that they knew my predicament. I had pending cases with the Comelec and the DOJ regarding my citizenship. I was vulnerable. But I cannot in conscience go against what I believe in, despite the possible consequences it might bring. I guess, I had it coming — the revival of my disqualification and deportation cases. Along with it, I knew we could not expect any manna from the national government anymore. This was affirmed after Typhoons Milenyo and Reming ravaged the city. We could not help but depend on ourselves and our private sector friends.

These narrations can go on, and on and on. But what is clear from all our experiences is that we can hold on to what we believe in and can buckle the odds. We have won and lost quite a number of battles — but we have never lost sight that what is right and true is not a matter of where the majority is. Regardless of who was on which side, we had done what we believe was the right thing because it was what was expected of us. Like I said earlier, battles were won when those who wielded power and influence were on our side. Battles were lost when those who could have made a difference opted to either remain indifferent or work against us. Although we paid dearly for the battles we lost, we can safely say that we have maintained our independence and self respect.

The dramatic changes in our political history were the works of the minority who plodded on to mobilize a new majority. With the recent pardon of former President Erap, we are again at a crossroad. The alliances have been muddled. While the administration seem to be breaking up because of JDV Jr., the opposition seem to be uneasy as well. While the most convenient alliance is to look which way the majority will go on both sides of the political fence, we hope that a few good men will choose what is good and what is right for the Filipino people even if this means forsaking their personal ambitions (should they fail!). We can look back on the events leading to EDSA I and EDSA II. It took a few good men, oddballs in their own time, to make us realize that in our hearts we knew what was true, what was good and what was right — and we were willing to stand up for it!