Local Governance: The Batanes Experience
by Maria Luthgarda B. Fabia
Transparency. This is the strongest word that a new Provincial
Governor, then a political neophyte, articulated when he took the helm
in the Province of Batanes on the 1st of July, 1998. After recording
a whopping victory in all precincts during the May 1998 elections, Governor
Vicente de Sagon Gato made his way to the provinces highest seat,
succeeding former Governor Telesforo F. Castillejos who then held the
singular distinction of being the first provincial governor to finish
three consecutive terms.
For Gato and his staunch supporters, it was the perfect time. His campaign
streamers bluntly stated so Panahon Na!. After two
failed attempts in 1992 and 1995, the Governor made no signals of giving
up. Talk about resiliency and passion for service. 1998 was indeed a
Governor Gato took center stage when the Local Government Code of 1991
or RA 7160 was already making waves in local autonomy and local democracy.
But the Code was still in its formative stage, like all other laws whose
impacts have yet to be seen. Faced with the
difficult tasks of reconciling carry-over projects with new ones, of
imposing fiscal discipline and with a clean intention of calling for
a comprehensive audit of all the expenditures and projects of the Provincial
Government, Gato literally carried a heavy load upon his shoulders.
To say the least, he had, as the new chief executive, a responsibility
and an obligation to
reconcile political and personality differences not only within the
walls of the capitol but among his constituents who need to be united
or else he fails to be a father of the province he
has vowed to serve.
Committees were formed by Governor Gato through the power of Executive
Issuances. Some of the more significant are the Provincial Finance Advisory
Committee, an Equipment Inspection Committee, among others. He strengthened
the Provincial Development Council as a policy-making body which looks
and acts on the development concerns of Batanes in the infrastructure,
social and economic aspects. Moreover, he designated the members of
the Personnel Selection Board, the Pre-qualification, Bids and Awards
Committee and the Awards Committee and appointed Vice Governor Constante
Castillejos as Chair of these
strong committees. Gatos principle was simple: he
must delegate the chairmanship to the Vice Governor because a good leader
is someone who trusts his men and therefore delegates.
The challenges were enormous. As a retired Navy Officer with a main
background on financial
management and logistics, Gato learned the ropes and crossed the bridges,
day by day, through a constant learning process with old-timers in the
Provincial Capitol and the new faces in his management staff. His naturally
charismatic and humble persona helped a lot
in his quest for establishing harmony especially during his first 100
days as a Provincial Governor.
Transparency. Governor Gatos transparency stand was a leap
towards effective community participation. He started with a weekly
radio program called Governors Hour in Batanes
lone radio station, Radyo ng Bayan. There, he made a weekly reporting
of the activities that the provincial government has undertaken, while
providing updates on provincial concerns that were being
facilitated in Manila. His close collaboration with Congressman Florencio
Abad was beyond party affiliation Gato made all efforts to breed
teamwork armed with a common vision of enabling the Ivatans to see and
experience what progress is all about.
On top of the regular reporting of provincial programs and projects,
the financial position of the province was open to public knowledge.
Governor Gato was devoid of ambiguity in making known to the people
the fiscal position of the province so that any perceptions of graft
and corruption would be eradicated at an early stage.
Employment, as in all other parts of the country, was a burning issue,
especially that one could not decipher Gatos position from his
political character. Simply put, many Ivatans expect to be given good
jobs because they supported his candidacy all those years
win or lose. Troops to the Office of the Governor was something that
the Governor and his staff had to contend with. Some were begging, others
were demanding. The situation almost became uncontrollable when a further
assessment showed that the provincial government could not accommodate
all applicants in job orders because funds could not warrant it.
But Governor Gato was indeed a born decision-maker. He addressed the
employment issue on a raffle system, where a rotation among
all applicants was implemented, such that job orders were approved for
a two to three months tenure. This provided equal opportunities for
employment in the different departments of the provincial government.
While the matter also gave birth to minor controversies, expectedly
because of the pains of being issued termination orders, Gatos
administration treated the scenario as a venue for more learnings.
In 1999, after a successful celebration of the 216th founding anniversary
of Batanes, a foreign proposal took the province by storm. Cyfred, Ltd.
of Nevada, USA, floated the idea of developing Ivuhos Island as a special
economic zone, where factories, recreation facilities, and port facilities
will be established. In the context of economic development, the proposal
was a welcome opportunity to open the doors of Batanes to bigger and
more significant economic activities that will generate employment among
Ivatans and revenues for the local coffers. For young Ivatan professionals,
Cyfreds proposal will encourage them to work for the province
and stamp out the case of brain drain.
However, the course became rough. When Governor Gato, adhering to his
transparency stand, conducted massive information dissemination activities
and public hearings in all barangays of the province, negative responses
outweighed the support of some sectors. The
Catholic Church in the Prelature made its firm stand of rejecting the
proposal for moral and cultural reasons. The ordinary people, on the
other hand, simply were not ready for a big-scale development process,
while some private groups expressed resistance based on the issue of
environmental degradation. Gato had the ears and heart to listen. In
a letter to Cyfred Ltd., he conveyed his rejection of the project based
on the collective opinions and sentiments of the Ivatans.
His move told so much of his zeal for governance founded on the peoples
aspirations. And that is democracy at its best. Transparency and community
participation gradually defined his leadership.
In the year 2000, Batanes became a beneficiary of the World Bank-funded
Third Elementary Education Project-School Building Program (TEEP-SBP).
The program was availed of by 20 priority provinces identified by the
Social Reform Agenda. It consisted in the construction and rehabilitation
of elementary school buildings which will run for four years. Again,
devoid of any traces of undisclosing and negotiating contracts, Governor
Gato opened the competitive
bidding process to all local and mainland-based contractors, who all
had to undergo accreditation processes. Public biddings were conducted
and was even open for the public to witness. The same practice was employed
for the Local Government Finance and Development (LOGOFIND) Project
under the Department of Finance.
During the year, Gato ordered the updating of the Batanes Master Plan
and named the document, Onward Batanes. Community participation
was immensely realized when workshops and consultations involved all
sectors of the community. This was intended to make sure that the Plan
becomes a reflection of the peoples aspirations and intentions
for the province.
The elections in May 2001 was a hard climb to victory. Gato had to
face comebacking gubernatorial candidate, Telesforo Castillejos. The
45-day campaign period was an exciting period. And a day after the polls,
Gato accepted the peoples decision a take two as
Governor. His reelection was a sweet success. The slim margin made Gatos
victory even sweeter. Because to him, a margin, big or small, hold the
same significance. And after all, the peoples support through
the ballot is the most important.
Perhaps, the Governor has added transparency in the list of Christian
virtues he has been practicing all his life. The standard processes
of bidding and appointments were upheld with a high degree of honesty.
He encouraged the participation of Non-Government Organizations in the
provinces programs and committees to emphasize that the private
sector has a say in the development process. This saw the membership
of private sector representatives in
the PBAC, Awards Committee, Provincial Clean and Green Committee, Committee
on Sustainable Development, among others.
His annual State of the Province Address or SOPA, also known as Ulat
sa Bayan, became a report to look forward to. Delivered every
26th of June, the Batanes Day, the SOPA is a comprehensive presentation
of all the accomplishments of the different departments of the provincial
government and expounds on the level of implementation of hard and soft
infrastructure projects. Moreover, the Ulat sa Bayan lays down the policies
used in the implementation of these programs, and provides a clear view
of the provinces financial status as certified by the fiscal authorities
in the provincial government. Usually, copies of the SOPA are requested
by government and non-government bodies which the staff of the Governor
always readily provides -- because there is indeed nothing to hide and
nothing to be afraid of.
The Final Stretch
The Ivatans decided during the May 2004 National and Local elections
that Vicente Gato should complete his three terms as the provinces
chief executive. He won by landslide and people recalled how far he
has gone since his first attempt in 1992. The orphan from Itbayat has
now made his mark as another governor to complete three consecutive
His commitment to a transparent government was evident during the campaign
period. He spoke to large crowds and narrated different accounts to
refute, answer and enlighten his people on the issues being thrown to
him. He kept his assurance that the files of the
provincial government are always open to public scrutiny because they
are documents of the people. Gatos mix of gentleness and firm
resolve gathered applause and admiration.
July 1st of 2004 shall mark another milestone in Governor Gatos
life in the public service. There will be more opportunities to practice
his powers, authority and leadership with a strong and sheer act of
transparency. As he gladly stated in his inaugural speech in 2001, ..This
is a government by the people, for the people .This is your government,
this is our government.
It would be wise to replicate Governor Vicente Gatos transparency
policy and participatory local governance at all levels. In so doing,
we can affirm that democracy is alive in Batanes, in the Philippines.
*Published June 2004 in the Batanes Day 2004 Souvenir Program.
Maria Luthgarda B. Fabia is a Senior Economic Development
Specialist at the National Economic and Development Authority and was
the Executive Assistant and Head of Staff of Governor Vic Gato from