April 2007
Faces of change / Changeless places

Reforms, relatives, and Bulacan’s governor

Governor Josie de la Cruz began her political career at the age of 21. She is one of the most celebrated governor in the country today and has won many awards for Bulacan. [photo courtesy of Bulacan Provincial Government]

THE GRINNING woman onstage hardly resembled the tough, fearless governor everyone describes her to be. But then this was two days before her 49th birthday, and she was on the last leg of a month-long “Thanksgiving Caravan.” Besides, she had good news to tell the hundreds of mothers packed in a public school gym that day: Bulacan was about to have its very first call center, which would ensure 6,000 jobs for the province’s residents in the next two years.

“That’s why I’m very excited about this,” said Bulacan Governor Josefina ‘Josie’ de la Cruz. She paused briefly. Then it came: “But then my term ends May 30. So the truth is, to ensure that all I have worked for will not go to waste, I have allowed my brother, I have requested him, to follow me and vie for the post of governor.”

Some of the women in the crowd fidgeted, some exchanged looks with their seatmates, while others nodded. Most, if not all, of them had heard rumors that the governor’s brother, Bocaue Barangay Captain and ex-officio Provincial Board Member Joselito ‘Jonjon’ Mendoza, was going to run in the May elections. But it was still more than a month before the campaign period — and there was the governor, openly campaigning for her brother.

Determining whether what de la Cruz was saying was upsetting any member of the audience was difficult. But for several of those who had regarded the governor as one of the few reformists among the country’s local chief executives, there was no question that this was just the latest in what they say are indications that de la Cruz had succumbed to traditional politics. The assumption being, of course, that Mendoza would be just a stand-in for the governor, who has reached the term limit, but who would make a comeback in 2010 — just like so many trapos have done and are doing.

Plotting to perpetuate her family in power, however, is probably among the mildest of the accusations that have been hurled against de la Cruz. Among the most serious allegations is that she has allowed relatives to land lucrative government contracts, leading to graft charges filed against her before the Office of the Ombusdman.

De la Cruz has fought back, sometimes by filing cases herself; she has even slapped a journalist with a libel suit, and just recently threatened to do the same to those who would write “unsubstantiated news to malign (her) reputation.”

And it’s still quite a reputation. Now in her ninth straight year as governor, de la Cruz, for many observers, remains among the best of the country’s local chief executives. It’s not hard to see why: From the 1970s and up to late 1980s, Bulacan was a province on decline. But largely due to de la Cruz’s bureaucratic reforms and innovative programs on education, health, social services, and economic development, Bulacan, which is just next door to the National Capital Region, seems to have won just about every award that could be given to a province since she became its governor.

Location map of Bulacan courtesy of Wikipedia

Just last year, the Galing Pook Foundation, a nongovernmental group that promotes good governance, gave it a special citation for achieving significant improvements in practically seven of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The province’s cooperative programs, for example, addressed the first goal on reducing poverty and hunger. Another initiative has addressed goal two on universal primary education. Other programs succeeded in tackling goals four and five on reducing child mortality rates and improving maternal health. Programs on reinventing public service by streamlining the bureaucracy and computerizing the capitol’s operations responded to goal seven.

Not bad at all for the Philippines’ third largest province in terms of population (2.23 million). Indeed, despite its large number of people (distributed across 22 towns and two cities), Bulacan is now among the provinces that rank highest in the human development index, with high employment and literacy rates.

De la Cruz’s own awards include being named outstanding governor by various bodies, and citations for her support of social welfare and health programs. In 2000, she won the Lingkod Bayan Award from the Civil Service Commission, as well as the Huwarang Pilipino Award from the Philippine Broadcasting Service.

“JOSIE IS an inspiring leader,” says Professor Alex Brillantes, dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance at the University of the Philippines. “The job of a leader is to provide the vision. She talks about a paperless bureaucracy, she brings in computerization, she talks about educational programs. She’s innovative, creative, and very dynamic.”

Bulacan, known as the “Gateway to the North,” is among the richest provinces in the Philippines. [photo by Avigail Olarte]

Brillantes adds that de la Cruz’s success can in part be credited to her mentor, former Bulacan governor Roberto ‘Obet’ Pagdanganan, who himself won awards for the province for programs on social service delivery and cooperative and cultural development. During his time, Bulacan was also among the provinces with the highest family income average and had the most number of small and medium enterprises.

“When the trajectory of Bulacan was going up, she took over and took it even further,” Brillantes says of de la Cruz, who began her political career in 1980 as a councilor. “She was the right person at the right time at the right place.”

De la Cruz herself admits that Pagdanganan was instrumental in her rise to leadership.

“The truth is he gave me an opportunity,” she says. “He gave me a chance to try out my ideas.” And when she became his vice governor, she took on some of the executive functions, which, de la Cruz says, prepared her for the gubernatorial post in 1998.

Today, however, she and Pagdanganan are political enemies. The feud started in 2002, when de la Cruz fielded brother Jonjon to head the league of barangays and sit as provincial board member. One of Pagdanganan’s brothers was said to have wanted to become the barangay league chief himself, but de la Cruz refused to yield. According to the governor, another of Pagdanganan’s brothers, Ramon, who was president of the Bulacan Mayors’ League, then began “defying” her. She says she moved to have him replaced as the league’s head.

Family is a recurring factor in issues raised against de la Cruz and that contribute to talk that she has gone trapo. Malabon-City-Navotas Rep. Federico Sandoval II, for example, alleges that the real reason why the governor wanted to cancel the Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) of Rosemoor Mining and Development Corp., which had been quarrying tearose marble in Bulacan, is because she wants a rival firm, Tearose Marble Corp., to have the quarry all to itself. Marble is one of the province’s major exports. According to Sandoval — a friend of Rosemoor’s owners — Tearose Marble is a “dummy corporation” that is owned by de la Cruz’s relatives only on paper.

In 2004, the Commission on Audit (COA) also scored Bulacan for buying P16.3 million worth of drugs without the benefit of public bidding. The supplier was BQS Drugstore and Merchandise, a small pharmacy in the provincial capital, Malolos, that is owned by the governor’s distant relative. COA had previously told the provincial government to buy in bulk commonly requested drugs to lower costs.

Then there is Bulacan’s purchase — reportedly without public bidding as well — of 53 vehicles worth some P17 million. These were bought from Freeway Motor Sales of Baliuag Corp., which lists among its incorporators three Mendozas, including Jonjon, the governor’s brother.

“I cannot deny that some of my (relatives) are probably getting into businesses here,” says de la Cruz, who admits one of her cousins supplies the waiting sheds for the province. “But I’m sure that they don’t control it.” And while she admits that she has “a difficulty having to exempt people from rules,” she also says that “it cannot be that just because (you’re my relative or close to me), you will enjoy certain privileges, which you cannot give to others.”

Previously, she had dismissed the allegations about Tearose Corp. as “part of a grand propaganda” devised to “muddle the issue.” Provincial lawyer Eugene Resurreccion, meanwhile, argued that if indeed Tearose “engaged in a wrongful act,” the governor “cannot be made party” because she “cannot choose her relatives.”

THE TEMPESTS over Tearose and Freeway have spawned cases against de la Cruz that were filed at the Office of the Ombudsman. Rosemoor’s owners accused the governor of grave misconduct and abuse of authority, as well as charged her with graft, for issuing small-scale mining permits, among other things. But the provincial government has argued that Rosemoor’s MPSA is illegal and that the company violated certain provisions in the Local Government Code and mining laws.

Malolos, Bulacan. [photo by Avigail Olarte]

Neither Rosemoor nor the provincial government could have been very pleased with the environment department’s solution, though: suspension of Rosemoor’s MPSA and all small-scale mining permits approved by the province.

As for the transaction with Freeway Motor Corp., Resurreccion says Jonjon Mendoza had divested himself of his shares in the company in 2000, or two years before the controversial vehicles were bought from it. The lawyer adds that in fact, only 39 vehicles were purchased from Freeway, which was chosen as the sole supplier since it allowed Bulacan to acquire these through a loan.

The provincial government had offered a similar reason to COA, which had called attention to its purchase of medicines from BQS. “(Negotiation) was resorted to in order to ensure that the medicines are delivered to the patients at the exact time these are needed,” said the Bulacan government. “Moreover, since the indigency program requires a big budget, suppliers who could extend them a credit line are best preferred.”

As of 2005, said COA, Bulacan continued to buy purchase medicines from BQS. But COA noted that at least it agreed to procure commonly requested drugs through a bidding process. An inspection unit was also supposed to be deployed at BQS to ensure the accurate issuance of medicines and that bills and receipts are not tampered with.

Bulakenyos themselves talk of the culture of “favorites” at the capitol. Sometimes, though, they are not referring to corporations that get preferential treatment. Reportedly, provincial employees — department heads in particular — have been given vehicles and enjoy certain perks like travels and studies overseas.

“I (just) know how to motivate people,” retorts de la Cruz, when asked about the “favoritism” issue. “To move this bureaucracy to work along the same lines that you believe in, there has to be something in it for them. It’s probably a little controversial for others but the truth is it worked. Look at how productive our people now are.”

“People only see one part, like the cars,” she says, “but it’s part of the entire totality of initiatives.”

Yet it does seem that Bulakenyos have been considering the bigger picture, which is probably why they had kept voting for de la Cruz despite all the talk that she had turned trapo. They have even tolerated her penchant for naming every other project “JOSIE” — among them JOSIE Leadership, JOSIE Barangay, and even JOSIE vans (mobile training teams for out-of-school youths).

Lately, the governor has been crowing about Project JOSIE or Joint Systems Improvement in Education. Before its implementation, Bulacan students were posting an average national education achievement test score for Math of 39.4 percent; for English, the figure was 40.23 percent. Now the average scores are 82 percent for computational skills and 71 percent in math problem comprehension skills; English reading comprehension went up to 76 percent. Computers were also given to all public high schools in Bulacan.

WHAT MADE de la Cruz first stand out among the country’s local chief executives, however, was her streamlining of Bulacan’s bureaucracy. Since the first reorganization during Pagdanganan’s time, de la Cruz has implemented two more reorganizations that reduced 1,753 plantilla positions to 1,619, and the number of personnel from 2,054 to 1,708 or a decrease of 17 percent.

This allowed the province to upgrade 406 plantilla positions, and with it incentives for employees like full salary standardization, cash prizes, trips, scholarship programs for employees and their children. She also merged the treasurer’s office and the assessor’s office — one of her classic moves, she says. It was controversial at that time, but the province’s tax collection increased and checks and balances were instituted. Bulacan is the only local government unit in the country with such a set-up.

In addition, the governor computerized operations within the capitol, improving service delivery, information access, and supposedly, resulting into greater transparency and accountability. (See sidebar.) “We really have re-energized this bureaucracy,” says de la Cruz. “It’s something that everybody enjoys because this government is run like a corporation. I run it like a corporation.”

Which is apparently appreciated by many investors. Today the province has over 9,000 registered businesses, with P17.53 billion worth of investments by 2005. It also has 249 “millionaire cooperatives” with assets of all cooperatives combined totaling to P5.3 billion or a 44-percent increase from 1998.

Bulacan did acquire a reputation for being a big borrower, though, spooking some observers. But official records show that the province’s financial standing remains sound. For instance, its 2005 total current assets versus the total current liabilities show that the province has P1.04 worth of asset for every peso of liability. Its long-term liabilities, amounting to P126 million, are also matched with P2.5 billion worth of investments, property, plant, and equipment, or a ratio of P20.35 for every P1 of liability.

“I’d like to think that I handle our finances well,” says de la Cruz. “If I have been winning as impressively as I have despite all these white paper, people must still believe that I am able to do my job well.”

She says she does not practice patronage politics that is the trapo hallmark. “To me the height of trapo is capitalizing on the weakness of a person to gain political advantage,” she says. And so, she says, she set up a strong indigency program, which is handled by her social welfare office and takes care of such things as providing free medicines and giving abuloy (donations) to those who have just lost their loved ones.

“So it’s putting up a system,” points out de la Cruz. “Imagine the governor of Bulacan doing nothing but going to wakes and birthday parties?”

As for her pushing her brother’s gubernatorial bid, she says she only wants to make sure her projects will be finished. If her brother does well, she says, she might not return to politics at all. “Let it be an open option,” says de la Cruz. “It will all depend how events will unfold. But if I say I really just want to finish, I really just want to finish.”

“For 27 years I have given this province my life,” she says in a strained, almost tired voice. “There’s life after being governor.”

The governor says she will soon be heading the North Food Exchange, an agricultural and fishery products exchange center that is one of her latest projects. But she says she will also be helping her brother (who others think lacks political experience) should he win against Pagdanganan this May.

She says that what has kept her going through these years is her faith and her idealism. And then recently, she says, some farmers told her she brings them hope. “(It) really made me happy,” she gushes suddenly. “If you did not believe there was a chance, if there’s no hope at all, my God, what are we wasting our time for?”

Then de la Cruz snaps back to her businesslike-self and says: “It’s being able to strategically look at things.”