It started with a phone call by Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong to like-minded local chief executives in July, shortly after he delivered a speech at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame railing against corruption in high places.
For that scathing speech, Magalong reaped a heap of “messages of support,” including one from Dumaguete City Mayor Felipe Remollo. He received a lot of muck, too: On social media, he was branded a “drug lord” and “gambling lord,” his grandchildren “drug addicts,”and his daughters “prostitutes.”
But the retired police general could not be stopped from rallying other mayors to his cause.
On the afternoon of Aug. 24, Magalong, Remollo, and Mayors Sitti Hataman of Isabela City, Basilan, Rommel Arnado of Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte, and Marcelino Teodoro of Marikina City launched the movement Mayors for Good Governance (M4GG). Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte is among the six convenors, but she was out of the country on that day.
“This is really very spontaneous; this is unprogrammed. We never thought this is going to be like this,” Magalong said at the launch of the movement held at the packed University of the Philippines Film Center in Diliman, Quezon City.
“We talked among ourselves. Let’s start it with a small group since governance and change are leadership-driven,” he added, recalling their conversations.
Word had gotten around quickly. Toward the end of the program at the launch, several other local chief executives joined them on stage to sign the manifesto on good governance. There were more than 100 signatories at last count.
Former Pampanga Gov. Eduardo “Among Ed” Panlilio, himself a member of the Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership, led the opening prayer. Former lawmaker Erin Tañada, retired Marine Col. Ariel Querubin, and Norman Cabrera of Ang Kapatiran Party were spotted during the launch.
To aspire for change
The movement is not harboring grand ambitions such as “solving the ills of society,” according to Remollo. Neither are the convenors proclaiming themselves “models of upright government,” he said.
“But we believe that if we aspire for change and certain aspects of good governance in terms of integrity, professionalism, transparency and pursuit of excellence, then we are bound by those principles,”the Dumaguete mayor said.
He added: If “top to bottom” change cannot be achieved, why not try from “bottom up?”
M4GG is not an exclusive group for efficient, competent and ethical local leaders, the convenors said.
“Let’s not unite for a person, let’s unite for a cause. That will be our compass for good governance,” said Hataman, who has slowly transformed Isabela City from a haven of terrorism into a hub of tourism.
The idea of forming such a movement must have been percolating in Magalong’s mind since he got a visit from “friends” and contractors in his first few days in office at the Baguio City Hall in July 2019.
The visitors offered a 20% cut in local government projects, and a 10% cut in the P250-million local development fund and the P50-million supplemental budget – offers that he immediately refused.
Soon he discovered that corruption was even worse in government agencies. In his inspections around the city, he counted 10 out of 20 infrastructure projects as “substandard.” He got so riled by this that he filed charges against the public works district engineer in court. To this day, the engineer – who is often appointed by a congressman, as elsewhere in the country– remains in office.
Like organized crime
“It’s like organized crime,” said Magalong, who led the PNP inquiry into the debacle at Mamasapano, Maguindanao, in January 2015 and was named the country’s “contact tracing czar” while serving as mayor at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
H said the provisions of P10-billion “pork barrel”for a district and P3-billion “lump sum” for another area – items ruled by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional — and a “farm to market road” in Metro Manila in Malacanang’s New Expenditure Program were even more appalling.
“Corruption is even worse in high places,” Magalong said, citing government officials who moonlight as contractors and suppliers in government projects in brazen disregard of ethical standards.
He said that while stamping out corruption was a tough, lonely, uphill battle, it should not be cause for “frustration.”
“Now that we’re mayors, now that we’re leaders, we’re in a position of influence. Are we not supposed to seize that moment and take the lead in the fight against corruption?” he declared, drawing applause.
Sharing “best practices” in good governance, Remollo said he had had confidential funds reverted to social services and done away with intelligence funds since he took office at the Dumaguete City Hall in 2016.
He said that before the pandemic hit in March 2020, the city government managed to build two bridges from its own savings at a cost much lower than the estimates of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
The winning bidders agreed to build the bridges for P21 million and P31 million, way below the DPWH estimates of P24 million and P44 million, respectively, he said, adding: “How come the gap is so huge? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Teodoro, who has earned praise for his aggressive response to the pandemic, particularly the establishment of the Marikina Diagnostic Laboratory, said he believed that his accomplishment lay in keeping his name and image off government billboards.
“In the last seven or eight years of my administration, I was able to resist the temptation of putting my face and name on projects in the city,” he said, to loud applause.
After all, the city belongs to the people, he said.
Teodoro said that when Marikina hosted the national sports tournament Palarong Pambansa two weeks ago, he told the players from 17 regions that the games were a good opportunity “to come together,” and not to compete. He made sure that there was no fancy move to highlight the city’s hosting.
The Marikina government has instilled discipline by keeping its streets clean – there are no garbage bins around, forcing everyone to stash their trash in their pockets – as well as painting its walls with art and keeping its sidewalks obstruction-free.
For years, it has also fostered inclusivity by hosting the “Pride March.’’ Here, the community churches “co-exist’’ with the LGBTQ community, the mayor said.
In the past two years, Teodoro has been consulting Marikina residents on major policy decisions. Before heading to the M4GG launch, he said, he met with the city’s senior citizens to discuss benefits for them — but they only wanted more “bingo” time.
In Isabela, a city in Basilan that had long been wracked by terrorism, the delivery of basic services to far-flung areas led to a change of heart among holdouts of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Hataman said.
During the term of her husband, Mujiv Hataman, as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, 300 ASG members surrendered to the authorities. Among them was a young “commander,” the mayor said. “We asked him why [he finally surrendered]. And he said, ‘We’re seeing roads reaching our place, we’re seeing schools being built.’ He thought, ‘Here is one Basileño, a fellow Yakan, who is trying to fix Basilan. Why ruin it’?”
“So you see, it’s really about bringing the services to them,” she added. “That’s why in Basilan, good governance is very important in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism.”
Hataman served two terms in the House of Representatives as a representative of the Anak ng Mindanao party-list group but stepped down to seek local office in the 2019 midterm elections in Isabela.
Since then, she has, among other reforms, instituted transparency by passing a freedom of information ordinance and installing LED walls; produced video lessons for students in nine languages during the pandemic lockdowns; launched IsaTV channel to address “fake news”; trained women on AI data annotation in partnership with a women’s group; introduced interest-free microfinance; and rolled out mobile libraries and clinics.
“I had a TV show, where I discussed transparency while slicing onions,” she said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
In three years since 2020, Isabela has become the most improved component city in Region 9 (Zamboanga Peninsula). It has managed to reduce stunting and wasting in children. Tourists also grew in number from 20,000 a year to more than 370,000 in 2022.
“We want good governance to not just be limited to being a measure of leadership, but be a demand from the people,” Hataman said.
For a time, Kauswagan, a fifth-class municipality in Lanao del Norte, was a no-man’s land. From there, the government launched an all-out war against secessionists in 2000 and dealt with rebel attacks in 2008. Hunger hounded the residents amid lawlessness and “massive failure of government service.”
When Arnado was elected mayor in 2010, he consulted community leaders and nonprofit organizations, and they identified hunger as the root cause of the rebellion.
He then focused on food production through organic agriculture and enlisted commanders from the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to support the program.
“It was not an easy task. There were challenges dealing with several groups. But due to our commitment and perseverance, we gained success,” he said.
In the end, the rebels were so convinced of the benefits of the program that they traded their arms for plows.
“This became a new way of life. I’m happy to share that we are 100% organic,” Arnado said, exhorting other mayors to go organic and join the League of Organic Municipalities Cities and Provinces of the Philippines.Arnado is now the president of the Asian Local Governments for Organic Agriculture.