Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sunday Essay: Seats of power

Sunday Essay Cartoon by Rolan John L. Alberto

TWO public officials, one leaving his office and another just about to enter it, gave us an interesting look last week at the way they see public office. The stories they figured in were about physical space—actual public offices, in buildings constructed with people’s taxes—but these also give us an idea of how they regard the idea of public office.

The first involves outgoing Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña, whose sixth term as mayor ends at noon today. Before his last workweek of the 2016-2019 term ended, Osmeña sent around 20 men to his office on the eighth floor of the annex building, where they then stripped the place of its cabinets, lights, pipes, door, partitions, tiles, and ceiling, according to a SunStar Cebu report.

They also took the toilet bowl, without which life in the City Government’s official seat of power would be very difficult indeed.

The second story involves incoming Sen. Imee Marcos, who was assigned, through a raffle, the office that incoming Rep. Antonio Trillanes IV used to occupy. ABS-CBN quoted Marcos as saying she might ask some Igorots (“mga Igorot namin”) to perform a blessing for the office, and perhaps she and Trillanes can dance with them so the ritual would have the best effect.

In Cebu City’s case, Osmena tried to defend his actions by telling journalists that when he returned to power in 2016, he had asked the City Council then for a budget of P2 million for improvements on the office space, but they had refused. As a remedy, he dug into his pockets and, by his own admission, received help from contractors and suppliers, and all that made the place fit for him to hold office and receive visitors in.

In removing all the improvements last week, he said he was just “restoring what it was all the way back to 2001.” Now, incoming Mayor Edgar Labella may have a reputation for being a nice guy, but can you blame him if he and his advisers ever decided to use this opportunity to win the public’s admiration?

In the same report, SunStar quoted incoming Cebu City Legal Officer Rey Gealon as saying that Mayor Labella will hold office in that stripped-down space that Osmeña used to occupy, “and the damaged ceiling would be covered with a tarp to protect the new mayor from being hit by any debris that might fall off.” That’s not a situation that’s likely to last for long. It’s both impractical and unsafe. But if the new mayor were to endure it for a few days, his team would get some images that would show his humility and patience in the face of surprising new lows in bureaucratic pettiness.

Imagine how differently the situation would have turned out if the former mayor had decided to leave with just the furniture he had brought in. He could have left behind a note in which he explained to the new mayor (his former ally and friend) that the desk and other furniture had such sentimental value for him that he could not part with them, and in any case, he wished the new mayor well. No muss, no fuss. No rancor, or at least none that the public can see.

In Marcos’ case, an attempt to win the public with some humor quickly backfired. A citizen began by commenting on a Rappler story that on behalf of the Igorots, he was refusing the dictator’s daughter’s request to bless her new office. Perhaps a mambabarang or two could help instead? That escalated quickly. Soon, refusals poured in from citizens who invoked the names of the mambabarang, the Quiboloys, the ghosts of the workers who died building the Manila Film Center, exorcists, Satan, Thanos, and three detergent brands.

Sometimes, laughing in the face of power can feel good. But it’s not the only thing we can do. We can, for instance, remind public officials to do as little damage as possible while in power, to be worthy of the trust and hope that lifted them into these public offices. And remind them to leave it in a better state than the one in which they found it.


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