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Politics is like mahjong

I was privileged to have served the late Governor Niel Tupas, Sr. as Provincial Administrator during his nine years at the Capitol. Every day was a learning session for me about politics. Talking with the man was like getting a one-on-one tutoring on the arts of politics, leadership and governance. Those nine years, I believe, make up the most exciting and memorable phase of my 59 years.Niel-Tupas

And there was one lesson that really sank into my consciousness about politics. It’s that politics should be devoid of hatred and bitterness. Politics is a vehicle for public service, and never as a means to pursue power for its own sake, and especially not to amass wealth. Politics is about being with the people, looking after their welfare, and using one’s power and influence to achieve that end.

Gov. Niel put it this way: “Politics is like mahjong. After an election, everything goes back to square one. The cards are shuffled (“ginabalasa”) and everybody gets a fresh start.” For him, acrimony has no place in his heart, which is perhaps the reason why Gov. Niel was so well-loved by his constituents and respected even by his foes. In the nine years I worked for him, I never heard him raise his voice in anger. It’s not that he never got angry; when he got mad, he would just frown and mutter a few words expressing displeasure. But then, he was always able to recover and get back in a good mood after a minute.

I will never forget what former 1st District Congressman, and now Guimbal municipal mayor Oscar Garin Sr. said two months after their 2004 gubernatorial battle. The two met at the Jaro Cathedral for the oath-taking of newly elected local officials. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the guest of honor. I was with Gov. Niel aboard his Nissan Patrol vehicle. Mayor Garin saw him and approached with a wide smile, extending his hand in reconciliation and friendship. Garin quipped: “Pati na gid man ako nga pirdi ang kwarta sa pikpik sa abaga (Now I believe that money can be beaten by just a pat on the shoulder).”

The elections had started as a close race between Gov. Niel and Mayor Oca. The latter had the edge in terms of money and logistics. But when the results came out, Gov. Niel had won by over 180,000 votes against Garin, who had never before experienced defeat in an election. Garin had the money; Gov. Niel had the love of the people.

With the national and local elections just a year away, I think it would be good for potential adversaries to ponder upon the wisdom of Gov. Niel in the field of politics. He never spoke ill of anybody. He was the type who would turn the other cheek if insults are hurled his way and get hit. He was always kind and helpful, never spiteful and arrogant.

Indeed, if politicians are looking for a role model, the late Gov. Niel would be the perfect leader to copy. He was the epitome of a genuine public servant and leader. He was Mr. Public Service.

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Window to the past: The saga of the Museo Iloilo

Architect Sergio Penasales is an angry man these days. That’s because his “baby”, the 47-year old Museo Iloilo, is scheduled to be demolished and give way to more infrastructure development on the Iloilo Capitol grounds. His anger isn’t because he was the architect who designed the 500-sqm. building and supervised its construction in 1971. He can’t stand seeing an institution that served as the soul of Iloilo torn down just to make way for “development”.

In the almost five decades of its existence, the Museo Iloilo has drawn hundreds of thousands of young Ilonggos to enter its doors and gain a deep understanding of Iloilo’s rich history and cultural heritage. It gave Ilonggos a sense of identity, a soul that has its foundation the bravery of our forefathers, making them proud of their heritage. No other institution has provided that kind of service to a people.

“It’s not just a building,” Penasales told this writer in a chance meeting at the Prestige Lounge of SM City Iloilo last Sunday. “It’s an institution that helped shape who were are as Ilonggos.” But his protestations seem to have fallen on deaf ears. With the opening of the Regional Museum in the restored Iloilo Provincial Jail building, TIEZA, which has been given control over the Museo Iloilo, may no longer use it for its original purpose. It’s not clear if the building will remain standing, or be demolished to make way for new structures.

Penasales vividly remembers how the Museo Iloilo came about. In 1969, Gregorio Araneta II, commissioner of the Bureau of Travel and Tourist Industry (BTTI), broached the idea of building a local museum in his home province. He had a budget of P100,000 for the project. The Province of Iloilo, through the late Governor Conrado J. Norada, donated a 2,000-sqm. lot on the west side of the provincial grounds as site for the museum. Araneta had hoped both the Province and City could chip in funds to pursue the project. But these LGUs had no money. The Capitol promised to haul 350 truckloads of earth soil as back filling instead.

The National Museum had a prepared design for the project. However, when this was put to a bidding, the bids were several times above the budget that Araneta had set aside. Penasales, then in his 30s, was recruited into the project and asked to present a design in one week’s time. Penasales worked long into the night to finish his design. The night before his deadline, he fell sick. But that didn’t stop him from meeting Araneta the next morning to show him the design which is now what we see is the present Museo Iloilo.

museo-iloilo-iloilo-museum

After getting the go-signal to proceed with the project, Penasales encountered a new challenge: how to execute his facade which shows the centuries-old churches in the province. “I had no experience with this technique,” he said. He asked another architect for advice. He decided to experiment. He drew the silhouettes of the churches on plywood sheets and had them etched, layer over layer to serve as form when the concrete was poured. The drawings of the churches were to be cast into the wall, not carved out of the concrete.

A stroke of luck accompanied the construction of the Museo. Just as it was about to be finished, fishermen discovered the sunken remains of a British merchant ship off the beaches of the Arevalo district. Among its contents were rare china — plates, bowls, etc. The fishermen had initially kept their find a secret. They dove under water to the sunken vessel instead of fishing out in the sea to recover a few artifacts at a time and sell them to collectors. But somebody tipped them off to the police, and the area was quickly cordoned off. The National Museum was alerted, and Navy frogmen (as they were known then) took over the recovery of the artifacts. This started the collection of artifacts and historical items at the Museo Iloilo.

Next came the debate on the name of the museum. There were people who insisted that the place be called, “Museo de Iloilo.” Penasales argued that it was better to just stick to “Museo Iloilo.” Penasales prevailed in this debate.

With this turn-over of the Museo to the TIEZA, Penasales is upset that the more than four decades of culture and history that was showcased here would be lost forever. The new regional museum at the old site of the Iloilo Provincial Jail has just opened, and there were talks about demolishing the Museo to give way for the development of the Capitol grounds. He feels this would be a great disrespect for the institution that became the source of Ilonggo pride.

 

Iloilo Capitol power bill soars anew; P1.925 million for March

The phone bill issue: a non-issue

The Capitol propaganda machinery whirled into action over the weekend trying to peddle the story that Governor Arthur Defensor Sr. wants to check the Globe cell phone subscription that was assigned to me during the past administration and find out if the calls made through it were “official”.

The issue is that Globe has sent a legal demand to the Capitol for the settlement of over P40,000 in charges. The Capitol spin is that this is scandalous, because it now appears I abused and misused the cell phone for excessive personal calls. Indeed, if I were in his place, I’d be appalled to see such a big amount on the phone bill, especially when it used to be assigned to his most hated enemy: me.

Defensor is wasting his energy trying to build up this issue. It is a non-issue. He is wandering in the forest, like a man who lost his memory and could not navigate through clearly-marked trails he had traversed over and over again. He should be spared the effort. I can see he can hardly walk straight, and walking 50 meters is already like a full marathon for him. Let me enlighten him.

The Globe subscription was contracted by the Capitol. It underwent the procurement process. The line was assigned to me by former Governor Niel D. Tupas Sr. because as Provincial Administrator, I handled a heavy volume of communications. If I remember correctly, it was started in early 2007. Hence, the legality or propriety of having a line to me is not an issue. The Commission on Audit never raised it as an audit finding.

As most subscriptions go, there is a “lock-in” period. In early 2009, it was renewed for another 24 months. My charges never exceeded the P3,500 monthly fixed rate that Globe billed for that plan. For the record, I have a Smart post-paid plan which I paid, and continue to pay, from my own pocket.

The problem arose in the middle of 2009 when the Sangguniang Panlalawigan cut by more than half the communications budget of the Office of the Governor. It was part of the political sabotage carried out by allies of Defensor in the previous administration led by then Vice Governor Rolex T. Suplico. Almost all operational budgets of the Office of the Governor were slashed to a bare minimum. The objective was to paralyze the Executive and weaken the political stature of Tupas.

With the communications budget drastically reduced, the Capitol wasn’t able to pay the monthly bills on that Globe subscription. Because of the lock-in, the company continued to send its monthly bill even though the service had long been cut. Hence, the amount now being demanded by Globe isn’t because there was excessive and abusive use of the line. It was because the monthly bills had piled up, and the amount rose to more than P40,000.

In other words, there is nothing for Defensor to investigate. The charges rose even though it wasn’t being used. The bills, I presume, continued to reach the Capitol since Defensor assumed office on June 30, 2010, but he, too, did nothing to settle that. He allowed the problem to persist, even though as a lawyer, he knew that it was a contractual obligation of the Province. My name appeared on the bill only because it was assigned to me.

It amuses me that Defensor would create so much fuss about the issue. But I guess he needs something to hit back at me because I embarrassed him a number of times with stories I wrote, especially on the lack of medicines. He needs to show to the people that I was involved in some anomaly. Unfortunately for him, the scheme will backfire on him.

A TV reporter told me Defensor had threatened to sue me to demand that I pay the charges. It’s a ridiculous threat. Defensor should read his law book on Obligations and Contracts. How can he make me pay for an obligation of the Province? Maybe he was misinformed. Maybe his aides didn’t tell him the true nature of the accumulated bill.

What Defensor ought to do is summon his aides and tell them to give him the complete picture. He was fed half-truths and he quickly bit on the issue, thinking he had a big bat to hit me. He should reprimand them for placing him in this embarrassing situation. This should teach him a lesson that he should study an issue thoroughly before he says anything.

Second look

Iloilo governor Arthur Defensor Sr. is a pitiable sight each time he faces the media. Much as he would like to put some punch into the way he talks, his voice sounds scrappy and thin, a far cry from the orator that he was in the 80s. It is apparent every word requires a Herculean effort for him, and he is like a toddler learning how to speak when he gropes for words and even connect them to each other.

But Defensor is even more pitiable when he tries to jump into the controversies surrounding the new Iloilo City Hall. A few days ago, Defensor was quoted by friendly media as wanting to seek another investigation into alleged overpricing of the Iloilo Capitol when it was built between 2001 and 2003. His basis? A reckless statement of Conrado Goco, president of the Pacific Orient Construction Management Co., that the construction cost for the Capitol was higher than the new City Hall.

Desperate to pin down his predecessor to perceived anomalies in government transactions, Defensor quickly grabbed the ball and signified his desire for a “second look”. The reader might ask: why second look? That’s because Defensor wasted millions of pesos in a witch hunt for supposed overpricing in the New Capitol construction when he was still a congressman and chairman of the House committee on good government. That investigation yielded nothing.

Now Defensor is hopeful Goco’s statement will score him some points in his efforts to link former Governor Niel Tupas Sr. to wrongdoing. Poor fellow. He had the power and resources to discover such anomalies in the Capitol construction if indeed there were. But after more than two years of probing, he failed in his mission. Will Goco’s statement change that? No.

It doesn’t take a math genius to make a comparison. The Capitol is six floors with about 15,000 sqm. in floor area. The City Hall is 14,000 with seven floors. The Capitol has a wide parking area with cobble-stone surface and lamp posts. The City Hall doesn’t have a single parking slot. The Capitol is surrounded by a steel fence. The City Hall isn’t. The Capitol’s total cost of development was P428 million. The City Hall, as projected, is P720 million.

So how can Defensor hope to prove his theory that the Capitol is overpriced?

Anyway, the stench is now so overpowering in the Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) in the Iloilo provincial government that several members have even resigned. The purchase orders (P.O.) for several big transactions have not been issued six months after the bidding. Is this the result of “failure to clinch the SOP?” The Commission on Audit (COA) should look into this. Because of this, much-need medicines and supplies have not been delivered. Services have suffered.

Suppliers are also complaining that payments are unreasonably delayed. The officials involved in the procurement process are busy facilitating the transactions whose suppliers were quick to come across. It is a shameless display of greed and corruption that many employees at the Iloilo Capitol can only frown upon.

The corruption that Defensor is searching is happening right under his nose! But he is being kept blind by a cordon sanitaire that’s exploiting his weak health condition. Those who have read Peter Jimenea’s columns are familiar with this story. And Peter Jimenea used to be an ardent admirer of Defensor and believer in his “Reporma kag Pagbag-o” campaign promise. Like Peter Jimenea, so many Ilonggos are disgusted at what is happening at the Capitol.

The Iloilo Capitol stinks

The much-vaunted “reporma kag pagbag-o (reform and change)” campaign battle-cry of then gubernatorial candidate Arthur Defensor Sr. is quickly sinking into a garbage pit as details about anomalous transactions, particularly in the procurement of contracts, are coming out into the open.

Just this morning (April 13), Bombo Radyo reported the glaring irregularity in the Iloilo Capitol’s award of a P2.9 million contract for the waterproofing of its roofdeck and plug the cracks that have developed in this eight-year old magnificent building. The Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) headed by Provincial Administrator Raul Banias, M.D.,, tried to push a little known contractor, F and T Enterprises, to bag this contract despite its lack of experience and specialty license. As Bombo Radyo anchorman Don Dolido put it, “there is no option left for the BAC but cancel the award.” For the Capitol to go ahead would only draw suspicion that money has changed hands, grease money that is.

But the waterproofing contract is only one of the many anomalies that have been uncovered. It is clear the roadmap for reform and change foisted by Defensor when he was still a candidate had been discarded; an agenda for quick money-making deals have taken its place.

Former Board Member Domingo Oso has complained that the contract for janitorial services was also rigged. He claims the BAC didn’t adhere to the procurement rules mandated by RA 9184, or the Government Procurement Act. The contract was awarded to the third lowest bidder on the pretext that it had submitted the “highest-rated” offer. Oso points out that this term doesn’t exist in the manual for government procurement. It was also discovered that the winning bidder is an “ihada” of Banias during her wedding. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to ignore Oso’s complaint that the bidding was rigged.

There are many other cases which are just now being documented by Bombo Radyo, according to insiders. “The smoke is coming out,” an employee of the Iloilo provincial government familiar with the goings-on in the BAC. The media investigations are likely to lead into the discovery of more collusion in the bidding for drugs and medicines, as well as the security services for the Capitol.  “There’s a lot of rotting carcass that Banias is trying to hide, but can’t hide forever,” said another employee who told about several members of the Technical Working Group (TWG) quitting their posts because they don’t want to be associated with these anomalies.

More trouble brewing at the Iloilo Capitol (2nd of a series)

On the first working day of 2011, Iloilo Gov. Arthur Defensor Sr. was fuming mad. “He was literally spewing fire,” a Capitol employee who witnessed the eruption of guvernatorial temper said. Defensor’s voice, weak as it is, roared with expletives. He got angry because no janitorial personnel was operating the elevator. The ROMAC Manpower Services Inc. which had faithfully and diligently provided janitorial services for the Capitol for six years decided to pull out its people.

It wasn’t an act of sabotage. It was the result of the Capitol’s new procurement system in which officials close to Defensor tried to outdo each other in pushing for their own business interests in awarding contracts for services and supplies. The corrupt system exploded right on their faces, and Defensor didn’t know he had stepped on his own landmine. Sources said ROMAC had participated in the bidding for janitorial services for 2011 last December. However, a member of the Bids and Awards Committee known to be an ass-kisser of Defensor told the management ROMAC “was certain to lose” because it was identified with the previous administration.

The BAC deliberately disqualified ROMAC on account of a minor technicality to enable a favored supplier to win the contract. ROMAC isn’t a patsy janitorial company. It has a number of satisified customers in Iloilo City that includes big malls and government agencies. It took pride in excellence in its services, and wasn’t about to beg for the contract from a corrupt administration. So on Jan. 3, 2011, it pulled out its people from the Capitol. This is what made Defensor very, very, very angry.

Sources said the provincial administrator has his own supplier. A town mayor from the 4th district also wants to push her own pet supplier. An executive assistant with “exclusive jurisdiction” over suppliers was not about to be outdone. The governor’s own people were jockeying to corner this juicy contract, and they ignored the fact that ROMAC’s services were due to expire on Dec. 31, 2010.

Defensor ordered ROMAC to bring its people back. “Our contract provides that we need to extend our services for one month should the provincial government fail to pick a new provider,” an executive of the company told me. The company relented, and the Capitol was swankingly clean and orderly again when its personnel went back to work. But the company is determined to stand on its principles. By Feb. 1, it will leave the Capitol for good. “We can’t stomach the corruption of the new dispensation,” said another executive. “We don’t want to appear as if we are being replaced because we are not doing a good job,” she added.

Defensor will have to rush the selection of a new janitorial services firm. He has only until Monday to do that. On Tuesday, Feb. 1, ROMAC will get out for good. It has fulfilled its obligation to extend for one month. It’s not going to stay a minute longer, said the first company official I spoke with.