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Remembering Jesse

Jesse Robredo was a self-effacing leader.  He did not want to sit in front during conferences.  Instead, he sat with the staff members.  He patiently queued up and waited for his turn to talk to a Globe service representative.  He submitted his ID before the lobby guard and registered his name.    He was never fussy and ate anything that was laid before the table.  He gave a tip to the gas attendant to shower in a public restroom on his way from Naga to the airport.  He ate with his bare hands while we were demanding to be given utensils.   He slept his way from Zamboanga nestled in a small boat that took him Siasi.  He did not remember any of the difficulties.  What stuck in his mind was a welcoming band at the port and the parents who greeted him. 

My most effective antidote to a claim of entitlement is remembering Jesse.   I imagined him smiling and saying “there you are acting up again”.  I remembered having a stand-off with the PSG when we refused to give up our seats for Cabinet members.  We felt a strong sense of entitlement since we were in the church since dawn. We created a scene before the funeral mass for Jesse began.  We felt embarrassed that we were not behaving like Jesse.   We gave up our seats willingly to make up for our lack of humility.

We have been so fortunate to have witnessed how Jesse governed.  He defined empowerment by example.  He gave dignity to every citizen by giving him/her a chance to be part of every phase in governance.  He patiently listened to their concerns.  He asked them to vote on activities that should be funded in the budget.  He informed them of their rights to public services, how they can be claimed, and a timeline within which they should be delivered.   He gathered and engaged them in townhall meetings and asked them to participate how to solve the city’s problems.  Did they prefer to fund road projects through a loan, or, were they willing to pay additional taxes?  His consultations were for real and the decisions were cast in stone.

Jesse eloquently explained accountability not just through advocacy but by demanding it.  The success of every program was measured by a metric. Standards for the delivery of service by every employee were defined.  He drew up a system of incentives and disincentives.  He was generous with praises and meted sanctions on those who abused power even if they were his relatives and friends.  And since he himself should demonstrate accountability, all his decisions and actions from the purchase of a cold tablet to the formulation of major policies were accessible from the city’s website.

And he had the skills and diplomacy to translate plans into action.  He dreamt of a day when local governments will be judged not on the basis of patronage but on performance. He designed and implemented a roadmap starting with the “Seal of Good Financial Housekeeping”.  The metrics were simple to get everyone on board, e.g.  no adverse COA finding.  The grant of the seal has then progressed by leaps and bounds and now includes various indicators of performance in health, education, disaster preparedness, among the many others.  He used to counsel us  that change does not happen overnight.  Many stones should not be left unturned.  “Ang mahalaga, ikaw ang nagsimula”.

Jesse’s greatest gift to Synergeia is showing how local leaders can become Education Mayors and Education Governors.  His face appeared flushed when I showed him that the children from Naga scored 55% in the National Achievement Test 15 years ago.  From then on, he took their education as his prime responsibility.  He saw to it that every child was in school from the first day to the last day of the schools’ calendar. Long before the Pantawid Pamilya was born, he was already giving kilos of rice to mothers whose children had perfect attendance.  He brought NGOs, business sector, private schools, and barangay leaders  into the School Board .  “Education is everybody’s business”.  What can each one contribute so that children can learn better?  He broadened the school boards’ functions even if they were not stated in the law.  “What the law does not prohibit it allows”.  He demanded efficiency and honesty because local governments and school officials were spending people’s money.

We still miss Jesse and pained by his loss.  But our loss is eased when we see  our Vice President and  local leaders taking after him.  Jesse lives through their leadership and the quality of their public service.

Source: Manila Bulletin (

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