April 2007
Faces of change / Changeless places

An old man revs up his town

ROSARIO Mayor Felipe Marquez preparing to leave for another sortie. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

ROSARIO, BATANGAS — Even in the wee hours of the morning, the dreams of Felipe ‘Mamay Ipe’ Marquez are often interrupted by knocks on his bedroom window. Sometimes, the unexpected guests are in trouble with the law and ask for his intercession. Usually, though, they ask for things, including money. Some ask for food. Some ask for pigs. Some ask for roofing materials. Many ask for medicines. One housewife asked for eggs for the leche flan she wanted to make for the fiesta. There was even a request for an airconditioner.

Such is life — and politics — for Marquez, the current mayor of this town, some 80 kilometers south of Manila. And while he cannot give those who rouse him from his sleep all that they ask for, he says he is trying to make sure they will have a town — nay, a city — they will be proud of. That means not only revving up business interest in Rosario, but also professionalizing the way the local government works.

Many politicos in Rosario and elsewhere have made similar promises. What makes Marquez — a first-time mayor — different is that, by most indications, he means to keep them.

Early this year, fastfood chain Jollibee opened its doors to locals and tourists. The town center now also has two major drug retailers, a roasted-chicken outlet, and more restaurants. It even has what one finds mostly in Manila: booths selling pirated DVDs.

Except perhaps for the pirated DVDs, Marquez is proud of such visible changes in Rosario. Townspeople themselves see the new Jollibee as a development barometer, and among the first few steps toward cityhood and more business. Indeed, real-estate developers are already throwing their money into this first-class town of over 86,000 people, building subdivisions in anticipation of more development and higher income by residents. In 2004, two subdivisions opened here in Rosario.

Yet what is also astounding is that Marquez rose to lead his town in his twilight years; turning 71 last Tuesday, Labor Day, he is the oldest mayor in the whole of Batangas.

This is also one local chief executive who did not go beyond grade four. That remains a major argument of his opponents in campaigning against him. But this barely schooled mayor did well enough in the business of raising cattle and pigs to send all his four children to college. He is also not short on political experience, having been a barangay captain in the ’60s, and serving as vice mayor from 1998 to 2001. In 2004, his win was credited to the townspeople’s craving for a change in leadership. He had a margin of almost 8,000 votes against his closest opponent, former mayor Rodolfo Villar. In a town with 24,000 voters, that is no small feat.

Location map of Rosario courtesy of Wikipedia

Marquez understands and speaks little English. He talks in Filipino with the soothing calmness of the elderly, his sentences peppered with “ala” and “eh,” a speech tic common among true-blue Batangueños. He has, however, instinct and wisdom honed by age and experience, which he uses in running the affairs of Rosario and steering it toward becoming a city.

MARQUEZ DID have to accomplish a lot in three years to withstand comparisons between him and previous mayors. Before he came along, Rosario was governed by long-reigning politicos. Felicisimo Luna was mayor from 1960 until his death in 1982. Then came husband and wife Rodolfo and Chlotilde Villar, who ruled for 12 years, Rodolfo from 1992 to 2001, and then Chlotilde from 2001 to 2004.

Just as in many parts of the country, Rosario’s politics remains fiercely personal: an official is judged based on favors granted or goods handed out to individuals, and a long-time mayor is bound to have granted more personal favors to constituents than a new one. And in the field of patronage politics, a project, no matter how worthwhile, is often not appreciated when it does not carry direct and immediate benefit to a constituent.

Marquez had to deconstruct a culture so long entrenched in his town: that a political office is a dispenser of personal favors and compromises. In fact, even some of those in the municipio long for the days when politics was more personal and less policy-oriented. Many still believe a good mayor is one who is able to deliver goods, even if services are overlooked. That a strong mayor is one who delivers speeches with bombast and is able to curb crime, never mind the concept of human rights.

THE town’s municipio was refurbished during Marquez’s first year in office. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Marquez, however, had other ideas about governance, even if he did end up appointing his daughter, Elizabeth Marquez Morpe, as his administrator, just like more seasoned politicos.

Morpe used to be a coordinator for the office of Senator Ralph Recto. But to help out her father, she had to abandon the construction business she and her husband had nurtured through the years. Her company does not do business in Rosario, in keeping with her father’s promise that ethics and honesty would be the centerpiece of his administration. The father and daughter team set out to attract investors. The father provides the vision, the daughter works to make it happen.

Initially, Mayor Marquez fumbled in choosing the right person with whom to entrust the municipio’s transactions. Weeks after getting elected into office, he had to part ways with a top staffmember who did not fully embrace his idea of honesty in governance. Marquez needed someone who believed in his principles to help him govern and wade through tons of paperwork that awaited his signature, one who could and would help him avoid shady deals.

Ako’y nag-survey sa mga mayors, congressman, kung sino ang kanilang administrator. Lahat sila kamag-anak din nila ang kinukuha. Naisip ko ang aking anak. Kaya ako’y masuwerte rin ako na hindi nga ako nakapag-aral, pero lahat ng aking anak ay napag-aral ko. Suwerte ko rin. (I did a survey of mayors and congressmen on who they took in as their administrator. All of them appointed relatives to that position. So I thought of my daughter. I am happy that even though I lack education, I managed to see my children through college. I am lucky),” he says.

Yet unlike many politicians, Marquez did not reward his supporters with juicy positions at the municipio. That policy alienated him from some supporters who grumbled when Marquez kept all his predecessor’s department heads in place, with their entire staff intact.

He also did not remove his predecessors’ names on government equipment, as well as on the projects they put up. Thus, ambulances and garbage trucks painted with the Villar couple’s names still go around the town every day.

“Mamay Ipe said we may put his name on our own administration’s projects,” says Boots Dalisay-Cabralda, a former journalist who Morpe recruited to handle the mayor’s office’s day-to-day affairs. “But he said it’s not nice to erase the previous mayor’s name (on a project or government property) just to replace it with his own.”

In his first accomplishment report, Marquez even thanked his immediate predecessor, Chlotilde Villar, who managed the town for the first six months of 2004. It was a gentlemanly gesture that is rare in the country. But he explains that politics matters for just a day. “Pagkatapos ng isang araw, sama-sama na ulit tayo (After that day, we all have to work together),” he says.

MAYOR Marquez announces his administration’s accomplishments. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

MARQUEZ’S FIRST day in office, however, was an indication that he and his administration would face an uphill battle; only one department head welcomed them to the municipio, and it was a tepid welcome at that. What followed were trying times.

As far back as anyone could remember, the municipal employees recorded their attendance in logbooks. But logbooks are easy to tamper with and thus encourage dishonesty and truancy. Or as a town employee now admits, “You’d see some of the municipal employees at the mall, but in the logbook, they’re at the municipio.”

To professionalize the local bureaucracy, the Marquez administration purchased a biometrics time and attendance system. It broke down suspiciously several times, but it seems to have since been grudgingly accepted as part of the municipio‘s day-to-day life. Breakdowns are now few and far in between.

It wasn’t only within the municipio that Marquez was met with resistance. The new mayor also angered various groups in Rosario when his administration implemented policies handed down by the national government, but which previous mayors had ignored. In one instance, Marquez, Morpe, and other town officials had to personally explain the intricacies of waste segregation and management to leaders of the town’s 48 barangays, in compliance with Republict Act 9003, which had been in effect since January 2000. Reasons Cabralda: “It was important to have this in place so that when Rosario becomes a city, it will already be clean.”

To popularize waste segregation, the town held a “Miss Ecology” beauty contest. The barangays had a competition aimed at involving the community in waste management. To show the public that municipal employees were practicing what they preached, there was an inter-office garden contest that used organic fertilizer from the town’s compost pits. The local council also passed an ordinance penalizing littering with a P500 fine or community cleanup for a day.

Just as all the grousing over waste segregation was beginning to die down, complaints came about the growing traffic in the town’s main intersection. Marquez formed the Rosario Traffic Management Group that manned the streets all hours of the day. Residents then started finding fault with the enforcement of stricter rules on the road. Marquez’s policies may be right, they said, but it wasn’t “cool” of the old man to impose restrictions. The mayor now says his constituents eventually noticed that traffic eased up because of the rules, and stopped complaining.

Then there was Marquez’s strict implementation of the taxes for the registration of businesses and public-utility jeepneys and tricycles, and the imposition of penalties on those who were habitually tardy in settling their taxes, or were not paying these at all.

In previous administrations, says a municipio insider, some businessmen and PUV owners were able to get a tax discount just by approaching the local chief executive and asking for one. Under Marquez, a stiff penalty of 50 percent for late payment of business permits and taxes was imposed to coax more funds into the town purse. Last December, using a P2-million fund, the municipio also computerized the offices handling the registration of businesses and PUVs, thereby enabling it to trace transactions, tax payments, and documents with ease. Naturally, some taxpayers resented being unable to get discounts, delay payment, or escape payment altogether.

Another battleground was the public market. While legitimate vendors were pleased that Marquez built them a new one to replace the decrepit place where they used to have stalls, they balked at the higher fee they now had to pay. At the same time, sidewalk vendors felt aggrieved when the town hall ruled that only those who had paid their business tax in previous years would be given priority in the new market.

THE TOWN’S balance sheet does reflect improvements in collection. Real property tax was recorded at P2.7 million in 2003. It went up to P2.9 in 2004, the first six months of Marquez’s term. Taxes from permits and licenses were P1.63 million in 2003, P1.8 million in 2004, and P2 million in 2005. In 2003, the combined collection from services and businesses was P5.76 million. It dipped a bit to P5.6 million in 2004, but shot up to P7 million in 2005. It is also notable that the property taxes were always reported with discounts in 2003 and 2004, but there was none in 2005.

The town’s market, rehabilitated with the help of pork barrel funds from Sen. Ralph Recto. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Marquez sought to placate taxpayers by showing them where their money went. He immediately set up 48 high-powered streetlights in the town center. The town also purchased 10 new additional patrol jeeps for the Rosario’s 48 barangays. Public schools were given computers, books, and sets of encyclopedia.

In the last three years, too, Marquez has been able to oversee the infusion of some P50 million for infrastructure in Rosario. The money came from the Philippine Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of Senator Recto, with whom the mayor and his daughter have close ties. When he was younger and still single, Recto had approached Marquez for help in getting the support of local politicos for his first congressional bid. Recto won and never forgot his debt of gratitude to the old man. Next to Lipa, where Recto’s wife Vilma is mayor, Rosario has received the biggest share of Recto’s PDAF. The funds were used to build the new market, farm-to-market roads, a lying-in clinic, a two-story annex for the municipio, and repair schoolrooms.

Despite all that money pouring in, Marquez says he has kept his nose clean. There were times contractors themselves offered him money after winning a project, but the mayor says he waved them off. Cabaldo admits, though, that in rare times when a contractor is insistent, the money is donated to the town hall for use in “unsupported requirements.” That’s the catch-all phrase for various requests that come with running a town. And there are many. Even today, they are varied and often odd, a reflection of the kind of politics the town has had and cannot quite get rid of just yet.

Marquez takes it all in stride, although in one of his earliest days in office his staff were taken aback when a man barged in, demanding money for liquor. The man was livid when his request was denied, and said previous local officials were “kinder.”

The mayor says he has had visitors who asked for pigs to raise in their backyard. His daughter, town administrator Morpe, was once reduced to tears when a woman asked why she couldn’t have the airconditioner she was asking for when Morpe’s own home was cooled by such. There are requests for money for medicines that cannot be found in the town’s health centers. The mayor scrounges around for funds, often digging into his own pocket. He perpetually owes pharmacies; he pays one pharmacy each payday and borrows from the others while waiting for the next payday.

Unable to refuse requests for him to stand as sponsor during weddings and baptisms, he has developed a modus vivendi of sorts with couples who approach him: for weddings, he can give only up to P2,500; for baptisms, P500. Marquez estimates he has stood as sponsor for over 500 times since becoming mayor. He says he’s not embarrassed over the amounts he gives because “iyon lang ang kaya ko (that’s really all I can afford).”

THE MAYOR gets, before taxes, a P17,000 salary, plus P3,000 in allowances. He has no budget for extraordinary expenses unlike other local officials, so he spends for the coffee and biscuits he offers visitors. Lately, he has discovered it is cheaper to offer salabat (ginger tea) than coffee.

MAYOR Marquez with his town’s youth. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Marquez’s 2006 Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SAL) places his net worth at P2.9 million. He declared a net worth of P4 million in 2004. He has one vehicle, an Isuzu Crosswind, which his daughter gave him in 2004. There are visible indicators of Marquez’s shrinking net worth. His herd of cows has been reduced from 50 to 19. His piggery has dwindled from 30 to eight sows. The roof in his house leaks. His wife relies on the money sent by their children working abroad for the upkeep of their home. That money, the mayor is quick to add, he does not touch. It is for his wife to spend — mostly on the food they need and to feed those who drop in to see the mayor.

Marquez says he has been offered bribes, the most memorable of which was P1 million for a land conversion. He says, “Inaalok ako ng pera, hindi ko tinatanggap. Sanay akong walang pera. Ang lagi kong sinasabi sa aking talumpati, kayong lahat na imbestor ay huwag matakot. Ang Mamay Ipe ay hindi hihingi sa inyo ng kahit isang pera (I’m offered money, but I refuse it. I’m used to not having money. I always tell investors in my speeches not to be afraid. Mamay Ipe won’t ask anything from you, not even a single centavo).” He adds that Jollibee officials were pleased with the town’s handling of their application to open a branch in Rosario, saying it was one of the fastest application processes the food chain had undergone.

The mayor does admit he enjoys some small, simple things that come with running Rosario: “Iyong mga inireregalo sa akin. Mga mangga, isang basket. Saging (The gifts I get. Mangoes, a basket. And bananas).”

Of course to many — even younger men — that may not be enough compensation for being perennially sleep-deprived, given his constituents’ penchant to disrupt his sleep. But to Marquez, the math is simple: “Ako nga’y natutuwa na ako’y inaari nilang kasama. Sila naman kapag ipinatawag ko ay pupunta kahit anong oras (I am glad they consider me as one of their own. I know that if I summon them, they will come to me any time of the day).”

Marquez says he wants two more terms to see all his plans through. He is confident of another win. He often forgets his age and hits the campaign trail with the energy of a younger man. His worried supporters in remote barangays tell him there’s no need for him to go from house to house, that they’ll do it for him. “Sila na raw ang bahala sa akin (They tell me not to campaign anymore, that they’ll do it for me),” he says.

In less than two weeks, this grandfather of seven will learn if he will still have to put up with little sleep, or if he will have all the time in the world to dream.