April 2007
Faces of change

People power thrives in Naga City

WHEN he is not out in the field, Jesse Robredo spends more time in the glass-walled anteroom of his city hall office where he conducts business as Naga City mayor — usually signing papers and meeting with Nagueños who seek an audience with him. [photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

NAGA CITY — Just about anybody who has avidly followed the remarkable political career of Jesse Robredo exhibited the same perplexed reaction to the news that the multi-awarded chief executive of this premier city had fielded his wife to run for mayor — a position he is also vying for in the coming local elections in May.

It was, after all, a classic move of a traditional politician, and therefore something way out of character for Robredo, who has maintained a reformist image for nearly two decades. But his supporters were quickly reassured. According to the mayor of Naga City, which is smack in the center of Bicolandia, he fielded his wife Maria Leonor, a lawyer with the nongovernmental legal group Saligan — who had reluctantly agreed to file her certificate of candidacy at the last minute — as a calculated move on his part, should the Commission on Elections (Comelec) decide to give due course to yet another pending disqualification case against him. (see Table 1)

Had it been another politician giving such a reason, perhaps eyebrows would remain raised. It’s not even as if the disqualification case raises new issues against him (like the previous cases, it alleges that he is not Filipino because his grandfather and father were Chinese), but Robredo says he has been told the odds may be against him this time.

Robredo has built such a solid reputation that people do not find it hard to believe most (if not all) of what he says. And so while his opponents have been howling that he is building a political dynasty in Naga, it’s an accusation that’s not quite sticking.

“They’re way too decent to take this route,” says Wilfredo Prilles Jr., acting city planning head and Naga’s prominent blogger, whose remarks about the Robredos echo those of most Nagueños.

Robredo says that had he really been bent on building a dynasty, he would have done it back in 1998, when he could have easily run for congressman, and his wife for mayor. But as early as then, he had declared that no one in his family would take over his post. “Not a relative, not my wife, not anyone who has blood relations with us,” he said at the time.

Now Robredo, who turns 49 in May, is also saying this will be the last election that he will be involved in, and even hints at a possible successor to his position in 2010 from his own slate. But this early, too, even some of his supporters are wondering if the reforms he has instituted are strong enough to last well after he has bowed out of politics.

Table 1: Citizenship cases filed vs Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo
Source: Bureau of Immigration, Comelec, Supreme Court

Orlando Tan vs Jesse Robredo (D.C. 1992-736) Compulsory registration of Chinese nationals and deportation Bureau of Immigration and Deportation Dismissed on the grounds of prescription (more than 30 years have lapsed from the time of complained act)
Orlando Tan vs Jesse Robredo (SPA Case No. 1992-040) Petition to deny due course and/or cancel certificate of candidacy Commission on Elections Dismissed by the Comelec First Division on October 6, 1992 for lack of jurisdiction
Rodolfo Fortuno vs Jesse Robredo (SPA Case No. 2001-020) Petition to deny due course and/or cancel certificate of candidacy Commission on Elections Denied by Comelec Second Division on June 21, 2001, declaring Jesse Robredo a Filipino citizen by implied election
Rodolfo Fortuno vs Jesse Robredo (EPC Case No. 2001-2) Petition for quo warranto Commission on Elections Dismissed by Comelec Second Division for being moot and academic

Dismissed by Comelec en banc, acting on petitioner’s motion for reconsideration, on August 5, 2003 for lack of merit, declaring Jesse Robredo a natural-born citizen

Rodolfo Fortuno vs Jesse Robredo (GR No. 159493) Petition for review on certiorari Supreme Court Dismissed for being moot and academic
Jojo Villafuerte vs Jesse Robredo (SPA Case No. 2004-064) Petition to deny due course and/or cancel certificate of candidacy Commission on Elections Dismissed by Comelec Second Division
Jojo Villafuerte vs Jesse Robredo (EPC Case No. 2004-20) Petition for quo warranto Commission on Elections Pending
Jojo Villafuerte vs Jesse Robredo Petition to deny due course and/or cancel certificate of candidacy Commission on Elections Pending, filed on April 3, 2007

Whoever will replace Robredo will certainly have a tough act to follow. In the 16 years — likely going on 19 with another electoral victory in May, barring disqualification — that he has been Naga City mayor, Robredo has distinguished himself as a titan among local government officials, reaping in the process accolades locally and internationally not only for himself, but also for the city.

Location map of Naga City courtesy of Wikipedia

For an interactive map of the city, click HERE.

To date, Naga has received more than 150 awards and recognitions in diverse fields of local administration during his incumbency. These include being named Most Cost-Effective City in Asia by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Direct Investment Magazine (2005); Public Service Awardee for Local e-Governance from the United Nations Department of Public Administration and Finance (2004); Women-Friendly City Award from the UN-Habitat and the UN Development Fund for Women (2004); Model City for Government Procurement from the World Bank and Procurement Watch (2003); CyberCity Awardee for its i-Governance initiatives from the United Nations Development Program (2002); Dubai International Awardee for Improving the Living Environment from UN Habitat (1998).

Last year, Naga bested bigger and richer urban centers like Manila, Makati, Cebu, Marikina, and Davao when it was recognized as the “Most Business-Friendly City” by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the third time — it also won in 2003 and 2004 — thus elevating it to the Hall of Fame. Naga is likewise a Hall of Famer of the Asian Institute of Management-Ford Foundation Galing Pook (Innovations Program) Award and the Presidential Gawad Pamana ng Lahi Award of the Department of Interior and Local Government. It was named “Most Child-Friendly City” in 2006 by the Philippine Council for the Welfare of Children, and received the Galing Pook Foundation’s Award for Continuing Excellence.

Naga is also one of only nine areas in the country cited by the UNDP as among the leading lights in the implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals. It leads the Bicol region in achieving the following goals halfway to the 2015 deadline: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating major diseases, and providing basic amenities.

Table 2: Status of MDG Implementation in Naga City
Source: 2007 State of the City Report, Naga City Government

Status Actual
Status Actual
Poverty incidence 27.5 18.9 Achieved 27.5 40.5 Off track 19.9 24.7 On track
Hunger incidence 34.1 5.6 Achieved 34.1 22.6 Achieved 17.2 27.6 Off track
Primary education participation 100.0 100.0 Achieved 100.0 85.1 Off track 100.0 90.0 Off track
Primary education completion 100.0 66.6 Off track 100.0 67.0 Off track 100.0 62.1 Off track
Under five-mortality 5.79 3.68 Achieved 5.79 6.09 On track 26.7 40.0 On track
Infant mortality 6.63 8.96 On track 6.63 9.33 On track 19.0 29.0 On track
Fully immunized children 100.0 112.0 Achieved 100.0 87.0 Off track no data
Maternal mortality 0.31 0.0 Achieved 0.31 1.16 Off track 0.52 1.72 Off track
Acces to safe water 67.52 100.0 Achieved 67.52 45.20 Off track 86.8 80.0 On track
Access to sanitary toilets 79.17 100.0 Achieved 79.17 69.85 On track 79.17 67.85 Off track

Robredo’s own awards run up to 21, including being named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World (1996) and the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines. He also received the Konrad Adenauer Medal of Excellence as Most Outstanding City Mayor of the Philippines (1998) and the first ever “Dangal ng Bayan” Award of the Civil Service Commission. In 2000, he became the Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Government Service.

DESPITE its first-class status, Naga has resisted spending on a cosmetic refurbishing of City Hall. [photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

UNDER ROBREDO’S leadership, Naga has blossomed into a model first-class city, regaining such status after being downgraded to third class during his first stint as its mayor. To many, Robredo’s defining moment came early when he cut ties with Bicol’s political big boss, Camarines Sur Representative Luis Villafuerte, his erstwhile political patron who was then the provincial governor.

A disagreement in the choice of Naga’s police chief led to their falling out. Villafuerte wanted a former classmate appointed. Robredo, unsure of the person’s reputation, particularly with regard to his administration’s anti-illegal gambling drive, balked. Villafuerte’s nominee got the post anyway. Robredo then sought the help of Monsignor Leonardo Legazpi, the archbishop of Caceres. Soon after the archbishop appealed to then President Corazon Aquino on the issue, the police chief was replaced.

This firm resolve to run after the symbols of bad government — jueteng, lewd shows, drugs, quasi-employees at city hall who appeared only during pay day — endeared Robredo to Nagueños and inspired confidence in his leadership. And so they blessed him and his ticket with an uninterrupted gabos kung gabos (sweep) in the last five local elections, even with him sidelined for a term in 1998.

Team Robredo, though, will be best remembered for providing the enabling environment for active citizen’s participation and engagement in governance. This, says Fr. Nelson Tria, three-term chair of the Naga City People’s Council (NCPC), has been made possible because Robredo understands and takes heed of the concepts of people empowerment and people-oriented development.

Renne Gumba, executive director of the Ateneo de Naga’s Institute of Politics, also says that Robredo’s “dominance” in Naga is “not the notion of dominance where someone orders everybody around. There’s an element of pluralism in his leadership style, letting various political players get involved, take sides. It’s really a commitment to a more democratic framework of governance.”

But credit should also go to Naga’s strong tradition of active citizens’ participation. As Nagueño lawyer Soliman Santos Jr. pointed out in his introduction to a 1998 study on people’s councils in the country, what made Naga different is also “the presence of an active and vibrant NGO-PO (nongovernmental organization-people’s organization) community…that is characteristically pluralist.”

The NCPC’s precursor, the Naga City NGO-PO Council, had actively involved itself in the affairs of the city back in the early 1990s. And from their quiet discussions with Mayor Robredo and progressive councilors, notably Jaime Jacob, would emerge the “People Empowerment” Ordinance that institutionalized people’s participation in local governance.

With the people empowerment ordinance’s enactment in December 1995, a city-level federation of over 100 local NGOs and people’s organizations, the NCPC, has been co-governing Naga City. NCPC representatives sit in all local special bodies all the way up to the standing committees of the Sanggunian Panlungsod (city council). It’s the first of its kind in the country and remains the most developed experiment in the concept of people’s councils espoused by “popular democrats” in response to Cory Aquino’s call to build “organized People’s Power” at the grassroots level.

Naga’s faithful compliance with the Local Government Code provision for NGO accreditation even went as far as providing sectoral representation in the city council in the ordinance, one that is similar to the party-list representation in Congress. But the absence of an enabling law prevented the Robredo administration from fully enforcing it.

IN THE beginning, some city officials worried that the ordinance gave NGOs and POs too much authority. But Robredo would always argue that they should be more concerned with what would happen to city hall once they are all gone. He points out, “We’ll not be in city hall forever. Everyone felt that we’re doing the right thing, we’re okay, so it’s not necessary. I said it’s necessary because sometimes we need to have people who will disagree with us.”

THE Naga City Citizen’s Board provides Nagueños with information and updates about their local government. [photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

“But we will not question their motives,” he adds. “Because if you have people who have questionable motives questioning you, sometimes you say this is just a political issue. But when you have people questioning you who you do not doubt, are well-meaning, then you listen.”

Illustrative of this healthy and dynamic relationship between City Hall and civil society is how a 1997 proposal to set up a golf course in Naga was settled. Robredo was for the golf course, but the NCPC campaigned against it citing environmental concerns. The mayor eventually had to concede defeat.

Under Robredo, the NCPC has executed programs like managing the caterers during the recent staging of the Palarong Pambansa hosted by the city. The council was also put in charge of the multisectoral Task Force Reming, which raised more than P3 million for Naga’s post-typhoon relief and repair efforts in all 27 barangays. Through Archbishop Legazpi’s intercession, the task force obtained an additional P30 million from the national calamity fund to repair school buildings. (To date though, Naga has yet to receive a single peso from the national government allocation. In the aftermath of Reming’s devastation, there has been no relief assistance from the national government for the city.)

Robredo now wants the NCPC to go beyond its facilitative role in the policy formulation process in the sanggunian. He thinks the people’s council should take the lead in crafting a legislative agenda for the different sectors that would then be enacted into ordinances and translated into programs.

But this “special” place of NGOs and people’s organizations in the affairs of the local government has not escaped political intrigue, with the NCPC accused of collusion or that it has already been co-opted by City Hall. Fr. Tria thinks these accusations are unfortunate. If the NCPC rarely has differences with the local government now, he says, it is because “(we) exist in a friendly environment.”

For NCPC Secretariat member Johann de la Rosa, the collusion issue can only come from sectors that are clueless about the context of the relationship, and hence feel they are not favored. He also says that the NGO-PO community is influential because of its established relationship with the government. “It exists to provide credible comments, not mere criticisms,” de la Rosa says, even declaring that the NCPC is the “credible opposition in Naga, not the camp of the Villafuertes.”

ROBREDO’S STRONG commitment to civic engagement in charting Naga’s development path would also lead to another pioneering governance innovation. Winning a fresh term in 2001 after a two-year sabbatical at the Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he realized that only about 30 percent of Naga’s residents belong to an NGO or people’s organization and whose concerns may be different from the rest.

MAYOR Robredo’s haul of awards, including the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, on display in his office. [photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

“The challenge then was how do we engage with the households,” he recounts. “So probably majority are interested with making sure that when they apply for a permit, everything is in order. They get it as correctly and as quickly as they can. They’re interested with busted street lamps at the corners near their houses. They’re interested with clogged drainages, garbage being collected, etc.”

The initiative is called i-Governance (i to reflect the project’s inclusive, information-open, interactive, and innovative characteristics) and gives Nagueños all the information about their local government. As Robredo envisions it, this would enable the city’s residents to fully use the services provided by the city government — and tell city officials and employees if they are performing below expectations.

i-Governance has two basic features: offline (a charter) and online (a website). The Naga City Citizens Charter is a guidebook on the city government’s key services, each of which gets a detailed description. There are step-by-step instructions on how to use each service, the standard response time for its delivery, and the city hall officers and staff responsible for its operation. There is also a list of requirements a customer must comply with to facilitate service delivery, plus location maps of the departments handling the enumerated services.

The website, Naga.gov, meanwhile, caters to Naga residents with Internet connectivity. The site provides accurate, relevant and essential information about Naga, including an extensive city profile, urban indicators and statistics, tourism assets, investment opportunities, and downloadable maps and tables.

An online component of the website called NetServe has an extensive catalog of City Hall’s services and, just like the charter, lists procedures, response time, and responsible personnel for each of these. Plus, it contains information about the city’s finances, including the annual city budget; postings of biddings and public offerings and their outcomes; city ordinances and resolutions; and a directory of city officials, complete with their contact numbers and email addresses.

Then there is TextServe, a cell phone-based service that allows Naga residents to send queries and feedback to the city government through short message service (SMS) or text. Launched in April 2003, Nagueños have been using it to comment on development programs and policies, as well as to complain, usually about drainage systems and collection of fees.

A TALE of two Naga City waiting sheds. [photos by Alecks P. Pabico]

i-Governance’s concomitant streamlining of processes and computerization of basic applications have dramatically improved the delivery of city hall’s frontline services. For instance, the determination of business and real property tax due has been reduced from four hours to one minute. Birth certificates are now issued within 30 minutes when in the past it took almost a week’s wait. The processing of mayor’s permits is down to half an hour from two hours; and building permits, from 15 days (as mandated by the National Building Code) to just five days.

Yet while such efforts have won acclaim anew for Naga, Robredo says all the recognitions and awards are mere affirmations of what he believes is the single most important achievement of his administration: making the Nagueño believe in himself.

“I think,” says the mayor, “if there’s anything that we’ve done here, it’s making the Nagueño proud, that, you know, I am a Nagueño, we can be as good as anyone, we can achieve many things that we have all along thought we cannot achieve.”

Gumba agrees. If Naga residents, he says, are more empowered than before, are emboldened to be more active in public and governance issues, it can only be attributed to the city government’s openness and transparency. He notes, “People visit the mayor and they see him conduct above-the-table transactions. This encourages them to even criticize him — and that’s also being participatory.”

ROBREDO HIMSELF admits to his own failings as a public servant. He says that while he espouses a merit-based system in filling up the bureaucracy, it sometimes becomes a gray area when it comes to casual employees due to certain political considerations. In fielding a ticket, winnability in some cases becomes the decisive factor in the choice of candidates, contrary to the principle that the choices should represent a sector, and are excellent in their respective professions.

Robredo also says he does the kasal, binyag, libing (wedding, baptism, funeral) thing more often associated with traditional politicians. Though he has made it a practice not to give personal gifts when he gets invited to be a wedding and baptism sponsor, the libing part, he acknowledges, is “patronage in the sense that we (city hall) provide burial assistance to people who need it.”

BATTLE of the accomplishment billboards. It’s obvious who the clear winner is. [photos by Alecks P. Pabico]

That he doesn’t spend his own money, even to build a network of loyal followers, could be why he is described snidely as being kuripot (a tightwad). Robredo retorts, “The reason why we don’t use our personal money in helping our constituents is because we really don’t want to touch government funds. That’s very basic here. In fact, even my employees know that we will not touch government money in city hall no matter what the needs are.”

But there are more serious allegations against Robredo, one of them being that he has enriched himself in office. While there has been no formal accusations about him making money out of the purchase of lots for urban poor housing projects and the like, his accusers allege that Robredo either erred in the appraisal, issued defective authorizations, or that a land swap with the Church was disadvantageous to the government. His response to those who say he has acquired properties upland: “If there is any piece of land that I have illegally acquired or was given to me as a favor, they can have it as long as they can show that it’s mine.”

Robredo has over 70 graft cases with the Ombudsman. More than half of these, however, were filed by a single complainant, Emilio M. Aguinaldo, who seems to have made a hobby out of poring over the mayor’s declarations in his annual statement of assets and liabilities (SAL). Aguinaldo, a former councilor, is identified with the Villafuertes. The Ombudsman has dismissed many of the cases against Robredo, either for lack of merit or lack of probable cause.

Most Nagueños brush aside the allegations — which usually resurface every election, says Gumba — for lack of any concrete evidence supporting these. Says one resident here: “He is living within his capacity. He lives in the same house, uses government vehicles. The only private vehicle they have is the one his wife uses.” Fr. Tria also says, “He’s open, transparent, and leads by example.”

Still, Gumba thinks Robredo has been in power long enough. “In the context of democracy,” he says, “if a leader stays too long, it’s going to be counterproductive. It’s not healthy. It’s time that he moves out so other leaders can come in and so that we can also test the waters.”

By that, he means the sustainability of reforms in a post-Robredo era. Will institutionalization of people empowerment through the NCPC be sufficient? Will the future local chief executive be as open or will he be confrontational? “These are unknowns and they are frightening,” says Gumba.

“They will have to repeal the law (the People Empowerment Ordinance),” says Fr. Tria. Although he says Naga’s electorate has shown maturity (the Villafuertes, despite their resources, have not won in Naga), the San Fernando parish priest is not confident they will always be so, and wonders how long Nagueños can continue to resist the trapos‘ vote-buying machinery.

Robredo muses, “Maybe it might happen in the future that they might make a wrong choice, probably for a term. But realizing that they made a wrong choice, they’ll make the right choice the next time around…. I’m sure that what we’ve done will benchmark the things that anyone will do in the future. And that benchmark will make the people decide and make the right choices.”

“Of course, some people will be influenced,” he says. “But at the end of the day, they will realize their long-term interest is more important than these short-term gifts.”