Our best city mayor

Last December, right after the Sendong floods devastated it, I decided to go to Cagayan de Oro City, my hometown. As I posted in Facebook then, when my family and I landed in Lumbia airport at twilight and with rain falling, reciting the Joseph Parry poem seemed right: “Cherish friendship in your breast, New is good but old is best; Make new friends, but keep the old; Those are silver, these are gold.”

These are gold – Cagayan de Oro, its natural gifts – the bay, the mountains, the river, and of course its people. Indeed, I cannot help it but often I cry as the plane nears the coasts and beaches of our city. It really is a beautiful city.

If today I have become known for my passion for protecting the environment, I must say that everything goes back to Cagayan de Oro where my father Gabriel La Viña Jr., who preceded me as a lawyer and teacher, taught me to climb mountains and swim in the sea, and where he first told me about a great leader named Justiniano R. Borja.

Mayor Borja was the first elected mayor of the city and served for 10 years. He died in 1964 of a heart attack at the young age of 52.

How could I, who was five years old when the good mayor died, talk about the latter so passionately as I did last July 6, 2012 during a memorial celebration in Cagayan de Oro of Borja’s birth centennial? Because memory does not have to be direct – it can be transmitted through stories, in this case by my father and mother, or through knowledge learned from years of studying environmental governance and public sector leadership.

What did my father tell me about Mayor Borja? That he was a man ahead of his time. That he understood, even in the 1960s, what ecological limits meant, as revealed by the anecdote narrated by my mother, Lourdes “Inday” La Viña, during a memorial symposium last week to celebrate Mayor Borja’s birth centennial. According to my mother, Mayor Borja told my father how the city councilors ran to read the dictionary to check the word ”ecology” when my father wrote the good mayor and the council about not transferring for “ecological” reasons the city hall across the river. That he was a fair and disciplined mayor who demanded the best from everyone, including himself. That he was a practical visionary who implemented things.

Among Mayor’s Borja’s innovations was the creation of a city planning board composed not just of government people but of ordinary citizens as well. Today we call this people power, citizen participation, and social accountability.

Whenever I talked about comprehensive land use planning, the touchstone of good environmental governance, I tell people in Cagayan de Oro that they do not need to look far as Mayor Borja’s planning board, later resurrected by Mayor Reuben Canoy, was the epitome of excellent land use planning, something to be emulated everywhere. Having heard me talk about this innovation, Mayor Borja’s youngest son Court of Appeals Justice Romy Borja, another great public servant who I hope to see in the Supreme Court in due time, invited me to speak at the memorial symposium.

I grew up in a city that was orderly, well-designed, a “walkable” city, where centers of commerce, art, religious and civic  ceremonies, were easily discernible. The foundations of this city, laid down mainly by the ten years Mayor Borja led it, are so strong that nothing we have done to it that might be bad is irreversible and that everything now wrong is fixable. This was the city Mayor Borja created and left for the next generations, the city that effective and ethical leadership, which is the heart of good governance, created.

But is this the city we still have? While I will love Cagayan de Oro for the rest of my life, and will always see it as home, it has changed. The city is bigger, crowded, dirtier, polluted, dangerous, and disaster-prone. There are many reasons why our city has become what it is. The 2013 elections is a good time to hold people accountable for that.

In the memorial symposium last week, I described Mayor Borja as a leader who rose up to the challenge of good governance, could say no to the powerful and to the popular when necessary, strict but compassionate, pro-poor but did not patronize the masses, understood the limits of nature and environment and what carrying capacity meant, and a builder of streets, edifices, people and institutions.

How lucky we are to have known such a leader. How lucky we will be if today and in the future our leaders will rise up to the same challenge of governance so that someday we no longer have to go back all the way to the 1960s to talk about our best city mayor.

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