The first 100 days of Manong Art

There was no pompous ceremony at the Iloilo capitol to mark the first 100 days of the Defensor administration last week. That’s because there wasn’t really much to boast about. Gov. Arthur Defensor Sr. gave a brief media interview in which he outlined the few things he considered accomplishments, like the tree-planting activity at the Maasin watershed (which his predecessor had religiously done for nine years, so nothing spectacular about it). But even Defensor didn’t seem too enthusiastic making a report, for he knew he had done nothing much.

But there were happenings during his first 100 days that Manong Art had consciously avoided because these were too embarrassing for him.

The first was his complete turn-around on his promise to the health workers of the province on the issue of the hazard pay. During the campaign, Defensor told health workers he sided with them in the legal battle with the Tupas administration over the benefits they claimed were rightfully due them under the Magna Carta for Public Health. It wasn’t a complicated promise: Defensor made them believe he would give them their allowances for the last several years.

The picture completely changed when Defensor assumed office on June 30 and the health workers, who obtained a favorable judgment from the Iloilo regional trial court, went to see him to ask for their expected bonanza. The health workers were not met with a smile; rather, a deep frown and an unfriendly tone told them the new governor wasn’t going to award them back benefits. Worse, the governor issued an ultimatum: accept my offer of the benefits commencing January 2010 onwards, or get nothing.

It was a painful emotional blow to the health workers who could have started getting these benefits, on a gradual, phase-by-phase, scheme, as early as July 2006. Governor Tupas had already constituted a committee which I headed to discuss the gradual implementation of the hazard pay scheme, only to be met by a civil suit before the court. This forced Gov. Tupas to suspend the plan and jsut wait for the court ruling. The court decision came in May this year, or about six weeks before Gov. Tupas was to step down from the capitol. He decided to leave the implementation to his successor.

The health workers had anticipated a moment of glee and thanksgiving when Defensor assumed office. They had started to count the eggs, so to speak, because they thought Defensor was with them on the issue. Instead, frustration quickly engulfed the ranks of the health workers. Now it’s a black mark for the first 100 days of Art Defensor as governor. Word of honor is gone from the lexicon of public governance.

The second is the waste of millions of pesos which Manong Art took from the province’s calamity fund. When the dengue fever threat reached unprecedented heights last August, Manong Art got a declaration of a state of calamity from the Sangguniang Panlalawigan and immediately set aside nearly half of the province’s 5% calamity fund for the purchase of medicines, IV fluids and other supplies. All in all, about P35 million was reportedly spent for this purpose, with a large chunk going to the purchase of generic drugs (read medicines from Pharmawealth of Ferj Biron).

Everybody knows that the dengue fever epidemic, if it can be called an epidemic, didn’t reach a magnitude requiring nearly half of the province’s 5% calamity funds. As a result, the epidemic has died down, and hundred of boxes of the purchases have been left unused in the capitol. Manong Art knew from the start he didn’t really need so much money to respond to the threat. But he had a debt of gratitude to pay, and he had the perfect cover to dispose of public funds.

Under Gov. Tupas, the province didn’t utilize the calamity fund unless absolutely necessary, as when the province was hit by Typhoon Frank in 2008. The fund was merely plowed back into the general fund, year after year after year. In February this year, as thousands of families suffered in hunger because of the El Nino phenomenon, Gov. Tupas asked the Sanggunian to let him use P5 million to buy emergency food supplies. That was a real calamity situation, and yet Gov. Tupas only asked for a small portion. Sadly, the Sanggunian controlled by allies of Manong Art rejected that request.

Third is Manong Art’s early announcement that henceforth, officials and employees of the Iloilo provincial government can no longer expect the big year-end bonuses that Gov. Tupas had generously extended, even to the point of engaging agencies like COA in legal combat. Gov. Tupas recognized that provincial employees are grossly underpair, and even the partial implementation of the Salary Standardization Law II this year isn’t enough to raise their standards of living. The year-end bonus became a mechanism for Gov. Tupas to “level the playing field” for employees.

But Manong Art made it clear that provincial employees will no longer enjoy that perk. He’d rather spend it on buying additiional heavy equipment for the province and generic medicines for dengue for the most obvious of reasons. For Manong Art, provincial employees are the least of his worries. Just as he had done with the health workers, he’s always ready to kick their butts if they don’t bow to his wishes. It’s a sharp contrast to the management style of Gov. Tupas who always put the welfare of ordinary rank-and-file employees on top. This early, the employees are feeling demoralized, unwanted, poorly motivated.

Manong Art will be known for his campaign of dismantling the legacy of Gov. Tupas at the capitol. And his determined effort to bring jueteng into the province in the form of the STL operations of the Eddie Gonzales-Iggy Arroyo combine will capture first place in his list of the dismantled legacies. Gov. Tupas waged war against illegal gambling in Iloilo for nine years, turning down handsome and tempting bribes along the way. He even banned STL in the province because he felt that gambling for the poor will not develop unhealthy values toward work among them. It ranks as one of his best legacies as governor. Defensor is about to undo that.

Towards the end of the first 100 days, Manong Art formally endorsed the application of Around the World company, the STL firm operated by Eddie Gonzales and Iggy Arroyo, to commence operations in the province. Why Manong Art chose an outsider over a local STL operator is rather strange. In fairness to the local STL operator, it had never been known to engage in jueteng or daily double. It’s no secret that Eddie Gonzales and Iggy Arroyo want jueteng to start business in Iloilo, and they apparently have made Manong Art and his provincial administrator industrial partners in the enterprise.

What strikes me as even more puzzling is the lack of opposition from the Church. Has the Church given up on the issue? How about the other civic groups and NGOs?

Well, the first 100 days of Manong Art’s administration have come and gone, and as I said, it was marked more by the unsavory things he has done than anything good for the province. Let’s see if the local media will now take off the gloves and treat his administration with objective scrutiny. I’d like to be proven wrong about my perceptions, but this early, we have already seen how the next two and a half years will unfold at the Iloilo capitol.

Vindication

Two months into the Defensor administration at the Iloilo capitol, we have already witnessed two major developments that demonstrate the character flaws of the current governor and prove his predecessor, Niel Tupas Sr., to have been right all along.

These developments expose the lack of integrity of Arthur Defensor Sr. which is now a cause for hurt emotions for those who fell to his “knight in shining armor” propaganda. It shows that “word of honor” is absent in his character and this will define the full term of his administration.

The first development is the much-ballyhooed reinstatement of Dr. George Acepcion as chief of the Ramon Tabiana Memorial District Hospital in Cabatuan, Iloilo. Acepcion was stripped of his post by Gov. Tupas because of serious misconduct and strong sentiments expressed by his own subordinates against him. When Defensor assumed office, he made a big fuss about putting back Acepcion to his old post, saying this was the right thing to do.

Acepcion didn’t last long in Cabatuan. Before long, Defensor was swamped with complaints from rank-and-file employees about the dislikable traits of Acepcion as hospital chief. The Tabiana hospital in Cabatuan is perhaps the best-run hospital in the entire provincial system, and Acepcion’s return threatened to undo the good that’s been happening there.

It took Defensor only a month to realize it was a mistake to insist on putting Acepcion back to Cabatuan. Tupas was right after all. Grudgingly, he reassigned Acepcion to Dumangas and put back Dr. Sagra as head. It was a defeat that was just kept under wraps. No media hullabalo.

The second, and bigger, development involves the grant of hazard pay which Iloilo’s health workers had been demanding for several years now. This was subject of a court case initiated by the Iloilo Health Workers Association to compel the province to pay its members the hazard pay as far back as 1999. The court ruled in favor of the IHWA. When Gov. Tupas received the order last May, he decided not to challenge the ruling. He had stated before that he would respect the decision of the court.

One of the last things Gov. Tupas did was order the computation of the benefits that had accrued to the IHWA members. But as he was then about to step down at the end of his third and final term, he deemed it prudent to leave the implementation to his successor. Besides, he could not then ask for a budgetary appropriation. The province was operating under a re-enacted budget, and the law says he could not ask for a supplemental budget with an annual budget ordinance having first been enacted.

What happened? Defensor refused to pay the hazard pay for previous years to the dismay of health workers. He offered a compromise: he’ll start paying effective January 2010. This isn’t what Defensor had promised the health workers during the campaign. He promised to give them what was due them. Now he’s singing an entirely different tune.

This is like a sledgehammer blow to the leaders of IHWA who had believed Defensor’s campaign promise. This is double-cross. As one IHWA officer put it, agreeing to Defensor’s proposal would be an admission that Gov. Tupas was right after all. But Defensor is now taking a hard-line stance on this issue. “Take it or leave it,” he arrogantly told the IHWA.

The Defensor formula will prejudice those IHWA members who had supported the court case but have retired from the service before the case could reach its end. It means that years of their struggle will go up in smoke, with the older members holding an empty bag. Defensor has gotten what he wanted —- the IHWA support. And this apparently helped him win, considering his narrow margin of victory. But he isn’t thinking twice about turning his back on them.

Indeed, this is the price for trusting a leader who lacks integrity. In the dialect, the term “meresi” comes to mind.

Gov. Tupas could only smile in amusement at these unfolding events. He is having the last laugh. He is getting his vindication.