Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beltran's 'sacristans'

Romblon vice governor Alice Fetalvero must be very, very frustrated.

As presiding officer of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, or SP, I am sure she is forced by circumstance to hobnob in council sessions with a bunch of elected provincial lawmakers who have different personal backgrounds, different motivations, and different levels of abilities.

As a co-equal branch of the provincial executive, the law designed the SP in such a way that it must be peopled by representatives OF the masses, BY the masses, and FOR the masses, so much so that the SP every three years, again as deemed by law, must welcome a group of people with varied persuasions elected by their constituents.

Romblon’s SP is no different from Congress. It is designed to formulate laws, and to serve as foil to an overbearing and abusive provincial executive. By law, the SP must do its work through collective action and debate, unlike the governor who is alone, and whose main job is to execute, or implement, the laws and ordinances issued from the chambers of the SP.

It is against this background that we examine the Romblon Sangguniang Panlalawigan.

Alice Fetalvero knows her work, and it is this knowledge that is one of the sources of her frustration. As former mayor, she had dealt with a Sangguniang Bayan in Calatrava and she knows that without the imprimatur of the municipal councilors, she cannot move an inch. In her case as SP presiding officer, she has to deal with a pliant—because it is spineless—Sanggunian. This is why she is frustrated.

Check and balance. That’s how the local legislative bodies were designed. That’s what the SP is all about. If only this design by the law is followed, the province, or indeed, the country, should by now speeding through the superhighway of progress.

Alas, the SP, as presently constituted, has abandoned for all intents and purposes its basic responsibility as a check-and-balance mechanism of governance. It is an “Amen” and “Hallelujah” Sanggunian, a Sanggunian that doesn’t “sangguni” (or consult), but a Sanggunian that merely goes along with the wishes, whims, and caprices of the provincial governor.

The Sangguniang Panlalawigan is no more than a rubberstamp Sanggunian. It has become a tool by the governor to lend a face of legitimacy, or regularity, to all things illegitimate, and irregular, that he has done for the last two years.

This is not merely an observation of a citizen. This is a view of someone who, in 2007, lent a few words of advice to some of the members who now sit cozily on their chairs in the provincial legislative.

Shortly before the start of the election campaign in 2007, Rep. Budoy Madrona invited me to give a pep talk to his SP candidates. Budoy then was up to a big challenge: unseating an incumbent administration led by Dr. Lolong Firmalo, and he made sure that his candidates reflected his dream of taking back the reigns of power from the neophyte legislator-doctor who abruptly ended his dream in 2004.

I remember the following faces who listened to that briefing: Nelson Lim, George Ramos, Gil Ll. Moreno, and Geminiano Galicia. Governor candidate Jojo Beltran was there, but he arrived very late, a reflection of his bad personal habits. He sat at the back, and pretended to know the subject at hand. I knew his mind was somewhere else.

In that only encounter I had with the SPs-to-be, I outlined the economic situation of Romblon and the message that they should bring to the people during the campaign. I said that as members-to-be of the SP, they carry a big burden on their shoulders to change for the better the socio-economic condition of the Romblomanons. I said provincial unity and hard work is the key that would unlock the province’s potential. They should work for that, I told them.

Either the candidates were not listening, or they were dense, or they had this prejudice against the wisdom of islanders, that they soon forget the encounter. Rep. Madrona seemed not to care, too, for he didn’t forcefully drive the message. The next day, they all went back to Romblon because it was the start of the campaign.

I recall this episode because as we see today, the SP is not functioning as it should. By sheer number, it affirms the governor and rams through our throats whatever it is that Beltran wishes to ram.

Sure, there are opposition members in the SP—Manuel Madrid, Benjamin Irao, and of course, Alice Fetalvero, but their collective force is no match to the overwhelming number of Beltran’s henchmen—Lim, Ramos, Moreno, Dorado, and Galicia. How about Pat Manalon? Is he or isn’t he?

There, too, are the ex-officio members Gerry Tansiongco, the representative of the barangay captains, Felix Ylagan, the representative of the municipal councilors, and Mark Philip Tandog, the youth representative. Their presence not only makes the SP a humungous crowd. They make sure that any question regarding Beltran’s proposals would be met—with defeat. What Beltran desires, the SP provides.

I have not attended any session of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, so I cannot attest to the quality of the debates, if there are debates at all, that transpire in the provincial legislative body. But I can attest to one thing: none of the members of the SP, except Alice Fetalvero, has ever corresponded with this writer on any issue that I have raised concerning Romblon. She calls to clarify issues that I write. Irao and Madrid, too.

As to the rest, they take it as business as usual. And their business? Peddling silence, deafening silence. They have been mute and deaf on issues that matter to the people.

I can also attest that on occasions I have read, or have learned, that the SP has acted or moved, it was to act or to move AGAINST the people of Romblon. I can as well attest that nothing thus far that has emanated from the SP, in terms of laws or ordinances, has changed the life quality index of the Romblomanons. I know, I have been tracking this index regularly. Has the SP, for example, considered legislating opportunities for emergency employment immediately after the global financial crisis hit Philippine shores? SP Irao, please answer this question.

And so, it came to pass that we are now nearing a decision point whether or not to send these members of the SP back to their comfy chairs in the capitol, or to banish them to oblivion. I am speaking of the May 2010 elections, when I am sure these elected clowns in the provincial Sanggunian, masquerading as servants of the people, will again conduct a visitation and beg us for our votes. Are we to re-elect deodorants to the governor or elect SPs with balls and imagination?

The choice is clear: Junk Beltran’s “sacristans”.

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